By Phil Baker
ESPN 680 Reporter
Last year after Morehead State defeated Louisville in the first (or second round, depending who you talk to) roundof the NCAA tournament, the Cardinal faithful seemed to be at an all-time low which was unfortunate considering the season overall was great filled with upsets and comebacks. UofL starter Preston Knowles went down with a foot injury in the final four minutes of the game which really rattled the Cards who eventually went down to Morehead State in the closing minutes in one of the bigger upsets of last year’s tourney. One of the main reasons that the UofL fan base may have felt so down is due to the fact that down the street John Calipari came in and instantly had success on the hard wood, so when the University of Kentucky made it to the Final Four last year it was salt to the wound of Louisville basketball fans, seeing their arch rival make it to the Final Four last year was the icing on the cake for Wildcat fans, not only could they hold the regular season win over the Cardinals in the brand new KFC YUM! Center, they made it further than them in the Big Dance.
UK fans will always be extremely pleased with Final Fours BUT Coach Cal did say in his address to Big Blue Nation when hired, “We don’t hang Final Four banners here, we hang National Championship banners…” So when the Wildcats lost to a hot UConn team last year, many were pleased with a great season, but Big Blue faithful can be tough crowd to please and with this year’s bunch it’s a National Championship or bust kind of year for #BBN.
I was attending a Final Four party last year filled with Cardinals and Wildcat fans, along with a little liquid encouragement some stood around a table, held hands and prayed for Louisville and Kentucky to meet in the Championship game in New Orleans (True Story.) Well the Basketball Gods answered our prayers, they were just off by one game, but who is knit picking… this is what the Commonwealth has been wanting for years, and Saturday the Dream Game II will take place.
(Point Guard): Peyton Siva vs. Marquis Teague
Siva is Louisville’s most important player, when he is playing well the entire team plays well and was the main reason for the Cardinals Big East Tournament run in the Big Apple. The junior point guard struggled for a good chunk of the year averaging just over six points per game. The pep talk Rick Pitino gave Siva must have worked, reminding him that the post season is a new season and no one will remember the regular season struggles. Siva will need to be at this best on Saturday against the Wildcats, he will need to stay out of foul trouble and cut down on turnovers because he will face one of the more improved players in the country in Marquis Teague.
It’s kind of hard to judge Marquis Teague on John Calipari’s measuring stick for point guard because the past few years he has had NBA lottery picks and Teague was (unfairly) expected to come in and do the same. Like Siva, Teague struggled in the early part of the season, ill-advised turnovers, questionable shot selection and just trying to force too many things to happen rather than letting the game come to him. The freshman point guard silenced the naysayers throughout tournament play, averaging right around 15 points per game and helping BBN to four double digit wins.
Both point guards have improved immensely and if could play key factors in the outcome of the game.
Advantage: Peyton Siva (barely)
(Shooting Guard): Chris Smith vs. Doron Lamb
Lamb has been deadly from deep this tournament, averaging just less than 17 points and getting a ton of open looks from three point land. The Cardinals will need to focus in on leaving Lamb open in order to have any type of chance of defeating the Wildcats. With all the other weapons on this Kentucky team it has allowed Lamb to get his points from deep which no team has been able to contain, and if the sophomore guard can hit his shots, the Cards will be forced to go man-to-man and that would mean a long night for Coach Pitino and his Cardinals.
You never really know what you are going to get from Chris Smith, he is athletic enough to keep up with Lamb, but his offensive game is hit or miss (literally.) Smith can really do the little things that Lamb may not be able to as far as pressuring the ball and rebounding but with the Cardinals shooting woes as of late, they really need J.R. Smith’s younger brother to really hound the ball as well as score some points for the Cardinals.
Advantage: Doron Lamb
(Small Forward): Michael Kidd- Gilchrist vs. Kyle Kuric:
MKG is something else; he is the youngest player on the team that organized a ‘book club’ for the Wildcats to practice individually so that that could improve their game on their own time. It seems as if this guy never takes a play off and is the vocal leader for this team, not only does he always want to guard the other team’s best offense player he attacks the rim without fear and is a double-double waiting to happen. This has nothing to do with the game, but speaks volumes about how he’s always striving to get better, but on UK’s media day Coach Cal gave Kidd- Gilchrist the choice to skip the Media Day activities due to his anxiety/stutter when it comes to public speaking. MKG told the Wildcat coach that if he wants to be a professional basketball player he is going to have to get over that fear. I know useless information about the game but still a cool tidbit nonetheless and it says a lot about his character. The first meeting between the Cards and Cats this season MKG poured in 24 points and grabbed 19 rebounds; he was a beast as the kids say.
Kuric has been a fan favorite since the closing in Freedom Hall against Syracuse two seasons ago, although he is Louisville’s leading scorer he has struggled offensively as of late, going for a combined 3-13 from three in the last tournament games. The problem is, the past two seasons there were other stars on those Cardinal squads and opposing teams really didn’t need to worry about and Kuric, he could just float around and end up his Korner and knock down threes. If MKG is guarding Kuric again he won’t many open looks due to the glue like defense, but should the Kyle get open he will need to convert on his open looks. You’d like to think a senior would have more experience than the freshman but being sent home early in the first rounds the past two seasons really doesn’t help Kuric’s case.
Advantage: Michael Kidd- Gilchrist
(Power Forward): Terrence Jones vs. Chane Behanan:
One of the main reasons Louisville was able to come from behind to erase an 11-point second half lead against the Florida Gators was due in large part to Behanan’s 17 points to help spark a 25-10 Cardinal run to close the game. Midway through the second half of last Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup with Florida, Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino decided to throw away the game plan and let Behanan guard out on the perimeter, the freshman shut down the Gator’s screen-and-roll offensive game by doing so. The first go around with the Wildcats on New Year’s Eve in Rupp Arena, Behanan picked up two quick fouls in the first half then picked up his third after spinning the ball in the direction of a Kentucky player and was given a technical foul which kept him out for a good portion of the game. That cannot happen in Saturday’s matchup.
One of Kentucky’s best weapons doesn’t always have his head in the game but when he does he is very tough to stop. That weapon is known by the Big Blue faithful as Terrence Jones and is arguably the Wildcats’ most skilled frontcourt player, and although he has been known to take a few plays off he still has more experience under his belt than the freshman from Louisville.
Both players have been playing their best basketball the past few weeks, and although I’m stating the obvious, whichever big man stays out of foul trouble will give their team the boost needed to come out victorious
(Center) Anthony Davis vs. Gorgui Dieng:
I’m still trying to form a list of things Anthony Davis can’t do… no worries I’m still investigating and can’t find anything wrong with talented frosh. The Wildcats center has lived up to the hype and then some, from amazing dunks, alley oops, blocks, rebounds and now the three point shot, the once 6- foot-2 guard in high school is getting to show off his skills when he was running point in the Windy City. No shot is safe when an opposing teams attack the rim, Davis is just there waiting and protecting the rim from any shots going down. The now 6’10 center has matched up with some of the nation’s best during the tournament and has shown why he is the Player of the Year.
If Davis is the Player of the Year I’m not sure anyone else who is more deserving to get the title as Most Improved Player rather than Gorgui Dieng. The 6’11 center blocked seven shots against the number one seeded Michigan St. Spartans in the Sweet 16 and continues to expand his game every time he steps on the court. Gorgui will have to protect the paint against the Wildcats with all of their scoring threats and that will be no easy task with Davis looming around waiting for an alley oop from one of his many teammates.
In my eyes Deing will be an All-American before his time is up here at Louisville if he remains healthy, but Davis is an All-American this year and is going to be a future All-star. Brow Down!
Advantage: Anthony Davis
Russ Smith: He’s the goofball of the team who is fearless and is the offensive engine that at times can spark the Cardinals when they need it the most. Yes, this 6- foot sophomore is the second-leading scorer, averaging right around 11.6 points per game and always has one of those ‘No… No... Russ… YES, great shot, moments. After Peyton Siva fouled out in the Elite Eight game against Florida, head coach Rick Pitino had to put in Russ Smith in at point, at times Russ-mania can get a little trigger happy, but with his 19 points and two assists, Smith was one of the reasons why Louisville came from behind to win. He was the only real offense in regular season meeting on New Year’s Ever pouring in a career high 30 points, a stellar performance such as that one will be needed in order to slay the giant known as Kentucky.
Darius Miller: Many would have a bad taste in their mouth after losing their job to a freshman, but Darius Miller is not your average senior. Miller looks at it as he is giving that spark off the bench when one of his teammates needs a breather, and the team doesn’t view him as a sixth man, they view him as a sixth starter. Being a Kentuckian, Miller knows how big this rivalry is and is aware what could come from a win or a loss.
Wayne Blackshear: After multiple shoulder injuries the McDonalds All-American is finally healthy and has been thrown into the rotation to help spark some offense when the Cards are in desperate need for it, look for Blackshear to play against the Cats if the points aren’t coming from the starters.
Kyle Wiltjer: One of the lesser known McDonalds All-Americans on the Wildcats, the 6-foot-9 forward with the slick jump shot could also see some playing time if any of the Cats get in foul trouble, and although Wiltjer is only averaging 12 minutes a game has become a not so secret weapon off the bench and teams are quite aware of what his outside game can do if you don’t prepare for him to play.
The ultimate bragging rights are on the line people… fans can try and stick needles in the their John Calipari or Rick Pitino voodoo dolls, maybe that will ease the pain after a loss tomorrow night. One fan base will celebrate their team winning tomorrow on Bourbon Street and make plans for Monday’s National Championship game; others will drink away their sorrows and play the ‘what if’ game with fellow fans.
Regardless, this is a game for the ages, something the Commonwealth has been waiting for since the round ball rolled its way into this state.
The Battle of New Orleans & Commonwealth is upon us.
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