By Noah Allison
Last year Louisville won the National Championship, the year before that Kentucky took home the crown. Now this next game may not be the National Championship, but for the epicenter of college basketball, this U of L v. UK Sweet Sixteen is the ultimate best two-out-of-three match.
For a Louisville fan it was hard to watch the round of 32-matchup between undefeated Wichita State and vaunted rival Kentucky without feeling a bit nervous. The game had the intensity, flow and high caliber play of a national championship. Kentucky overcame a tough regular season and was able to shock the Shockers 78-76 to advance. Now the Sweet Sixteen in Indianapolis will play host to another chapter in the Louisville v. Kentucky basketball rivalry, with everything under the sun on the line.
In late December the then one loss Cardinals travelled to Rupp to take on Kentucky where they fell 73-66. Those few months feel like a lifetime ago though, with both teams finding their identity and classically hitting their strides at the right time.
In the loss at Rupp Kentucky’s length and size gave Louisville trouble, the Cats outrebounded the Cards 44-36. The size of the two teams hasn’t changed since then, Kentucky doesn’t start a person shorter than six-foot-six. Louisville’s backcourt size of Chris Jones, five-foot-eight and Russ Smith, six-foot, could create problems. Not too mention Kentucky’s two seven-foot tall centers compared to Louisville’s six-ten Stephan Van Treese and six-eleven Mangok Mathiang.
But if there is one thing about Louisville v. Kentucky it’s that you can throw common sense and tales of the tape out the window, this is no mere game. The energy of the moment takes over and it’s all about who is going to refuse to lose.
At Rupp the Cards took the lead with just under ten minutes to play. The games leading scorer was Louisville shooting guard Russ Smith with 19 points, but he went totally dry and did not score a point in the last seven minutes of the game.
Smith leads the Cards in scoring with 650 points, assists with 169 and free throw attempts with 207. He has yet to look excellent in the tournament thus far, but he has done everything the Cards have needed out of him in order to win. Against Saint Louis Smith’s shot was not falling, so instead he relentlessly attacked the basket to draw fouls and get to the line. Smith scored 11 points against Saint Louis, five of which coming from the line. He also had seven assists to get the rest of the team involved.
Louisville cannot imagine beating Kentucky without Russ Smith stepping up, he doesn’t have to play out of his mind and he doesn’t need to try and score forty, that is what Russ has learned. But he does need to play great, whether that is via assists, steals, drawing fouls, or heck Russ, go ahead and score forty.
Kentucky is a veracious rebounding team with seven different players pulling down at least 100 rebounds on the season, and the Cats are led by freshman power forward Julius Randle who has 383 on the season. Randle also leads the Cats in scoring with 542 points. It will be a scheme and team effort for the Cardinals to stop Randle, but the brunt of the load will be put on the shoulders of Louisville’s own phenomenal power forward, sophomore Montrezl Harrell.
During that first matchup the Cardinals still had forward Chane Behanan, he was permanently dismissed from the team following that game. Since then Harrell has more than risen to the challenge of being the team’s big man. Harrell leads the Cardinals in rebounds with 303 and is tied for most blocks with 49. Harrell is quite simply a monster, his drive and work ethic has him an entirely different and far better basketball player than the first time these two teams met. It will be a clash of titans with Harrell and Randle on the court and maybe physicists will be able to watch and study to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object.
Perhaps the biggest difference from that game to this upcoming one is the health and play of Louisville forward Luke Hancock. Hancock had yet to get his first start and was still troubled by an Achilles tendon injury during the early season loss. Hancock has since proven to be everything the Cardinals already know him to be, dependable. In the opening round battle with Manhattan Hancock scored the last eight points to break the hearts of the upset hungry Jaspers. He followed it up with scoring the Cards’ first eight points against Saint Louis, he led all scorers with 21 points in that game.
Luke is the MVP of the Final Four and the reason the Cards won the Championship. In Indianapolis when 30,000 people looked away in fright at the sight of Kevin Ware’s broken leg, Luke didn’t hesitate one moment before joining his brother’s side to say a prayer and get him through the horrifying moment. The Luke the Cats saw in December is not the Luke they will see in Lucas Oil Stadium.
But those are the players that have stepped up all year and there is no doubt the Cards can’t win without them. It is going to be Stephan Van Treese bringing the hustle, Mangok Mathiang getting key blocked shots, Terry Rozier bringing stability, Wayne Blackshear bringing the situational plays and Chris Jones bringing his big game potential that is going to make the difference.
Kentucky is playing their best basketball right now and they are knocking down shots at a higher rate then they did all regular season. They feel on top of the world and know that they deserve to be in this situation. They’re young enthusiasm can be their key or their kryptonite.
Rick Pitino is undefeated in Sweet Sixteen games, and these Cards have been there and done that. It’s a tale of NBA talent versus championship experience, but as far as anybody in Louisville and the state of Kentucky are concerned, it’s just game on.