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Louisville vs. Western Kentucky preview: Cards and ‘Tops set for battle in Nashville

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U of L is likely a neutral court win over WKU away from being the new No. 1 team in the country.

Akron v Louisville Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals (6-0) vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-1)

Game Time: 5:04 p.m.

Location: Bridgestone Arena: Nashville, Tenn.

Television: CBSSN on Facebook (link here)

Announcers: Chris Hassel (play-by-play), Bob Wenzel (analyst), and Ashley Holder (reporter)

Officials: Mike Stephens, A.J. Desai, Tony Henderson

Favorite: Louisville by 11.5

Series: Louisville leads 40-39

Last Meeting: Louisville won 78-56 on Dec. 19, 2015 at the KFC Yum Center

Series History:

Probable Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Western Kentucky’s Season to Date:

Relevant Videos:

About Western Kentucky:

One of the most talented non-power conference teams in America, Western Kentucky enters Friday’s game with Louisville coming off of a fourth-place finish at the Paradise Jam tournament, where they won two of the three games they played in. At 6-1 overall, the Hilltoppers are off to their best start since the 2006-07 season.

WKU is led by one of the best big men in college basketball in Charles Bassey. The 6’11 sophomore out of Aspire Academy here in Louisville enters Friday nearly averaging a double-double at 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He’s coming off perhaps his best performance of the season, torching Fordham in the final game of the Paradise Jam with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Bassey is an imposing physical specimen who has developed a more well-rounded offensive game this season, but who still does the bulk of his best work before catching the ball.

Bassey is also a major deterrent at the other end of the floor, where he’s blocked 10 shots in six games so far this season. He’s done that without fouling out of a game, and has only picked up four fouls twice. Rick Stansbury’s defenses are known for their lack of fouling, and the big man is no exception.

Bassey is one of the better two-way rebounders in all of college basketball, but one thing I will point is out is that his teammates often seem to just expect the big man to corral every defensive rebounding. The result is that WKU has terrific offensive rebounding numbers, but is just 280th in the country in defensive rebound percentage. That could be a dream scenario for a guy like Dwayne Sutton.

It goes without saying that inside, this is the biggest challenge Steven Enoch and Malik Williams have seen so far this season.

The team’s second-leading scorer is IUPUI grad transfer Camron Justice (14.0 ppg). Justice is a lights out three-point shooter who is 20-of-46 (43.5 percent) from deep entering today’s game. He was 6-of-8 from beyond the arc in the win over Fordham four days ago. Justice is a decent enough player off the bounce, but his main threat to the Cardinals is going to be off the catch and shoot.

Carson Williams, another transfer who spent the 2017-18 season at Northern Kentucky, is third on the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.1 rpg). Williams, a 6’5 forward who starred at Owen County High School, is essentially WKU’s Dwayne Sutton. He’s developed a better perimeter game this season, but still does the bulk of his dirty work in the paint despite being undersized.

Perhaps WKU’s most gifted all-around player is junior Taveion Hollingsworth. The 2017 Mr. Kentucky Basketball graduated from Paul Dunbar High School as the leading scorer in the history of Lexington high school hoops. He smashed Courtney Lee’s freshman scoring record during his first season with the Hilltoppers, averaging 13.3 ppg in 2017-18. His scoring is down slightly this season because he’s being asked to play the primary role of facilitator, but his stat line of 11.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game is still a respectable one.

Hollingsworth still carries a chip on his shoulder over not being recruited by college basketball’s power conference programs, especially the local ones. He’s a high major talent who will be doing everything in his power to prove to Cardinal fans that the previous regime missed the boat by not offering him. Bassey is going to do his thing in the paint, but if you’re looking for a second guy to have eyes on this evening, Hollingsworth would be my pick.

Redshirt senior Jared Savage is the fifth Western Kentucky player who averages double figures in scoring (10.7 ppg). The 6’5 native of Bowling Green is the consummate jack of all trades, master of none player. He does everything well enough, but isn’t spectacular in one area. Stansbury seems to trust him more than any player on his roster, as Savage ranked fourth in Conference USA in minutes played last season. He’s a solid defender who will be tasked with shoulder a solid chunk of the “slowing down Jordan Nwora” load.

Offensively, Western Kentucky is the best team Louisville has faced this season. They rank eighth in the country in effective field goal percentage and are No. 38 overall in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. The Hilltoppers do struggle mightily with turnovers, which would be more of a factor here if U of L played a defense designed to turn their opponents over. The ‘Tops are also tremendous when it comes to getting to the free-throw line, which they do more than all but six other teams in Division-I. They take full advantage once they get there, shooting 77.7 percent from the charity stripe as a team.

Defensively, the numbers are less stout for WKU. They don’t force turnovers and too often in the paint they make wild attempts to block shots instead of tough contests, which has played a huge part in their opponents shooting an exceptionally high percentage inside the three-point line. As previously mentioned, they are terrific at not fouling, but sometimes that comes at the detriment of their on-ball defense. They also really struggle with defensive rebounding outside of Bassey.

The scariest thing about this game if you’re a Louisville fan is that Stansbury has a long history of fielding very talented teams that play to the level of their competition. Western Kentucky has the feel of an ultra-Stansbury team that is going to lose at least a couple of C-USA games it has no business losing, but is also going to be able to go shot-for-shot with a team like Louisville because it’ll be sky-high for that game.

We’ll see if the Cards are going to be able to match that “David” mindset and effort-level.

Notable:

—Louisville is off to a 6-0 start for the first time since the 2014-15 season. The Cardinals began that season 11-0.

—Louisville has won seven straight in the series against Western Kentucky. The Cardinals have not lost to the Hilltoppers since Nov. 30, 2008, when they dropped a 68-54 decision to WKU in Nashville.

—Louisville is second in the nation in field goal percentage (.555) and is eighth in the nation in three-point percentage (.440, leads the ACC).

—Western Kentucky is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage (.528).

—Louisville is 39-14 in neutral site games over the last six years.

—Louisville is the highest-ranked team WKU has faced since falling to No. 1 Kentucky in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals would be the highest-ranked team WKU has beaten since defeating No. 2 San Francisco on Dec. 19, 1956. The Hilltoppers are 5-28 all-time against top-five opponents.

—Louisville has a 49-6 record during the month of November over the last nine years, winning 29 of its last 33 games in that month.

—Since the start of the 2017-18 season, WKU has gone 3-3 against top 25 teams and 3-1 against ranked Power Five opponents.

—Dwayne Sutton’s 29 rebounds in the last two games are the most in two games for a Cardinal since Chinanu Onuaku had as many in two games in Jan. 3 and 7, 2016.

—Darius Perry is third in the ACC in assists (6.3 apg, 20th in the nation), more than four times his average assists from last season. He is second in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.80).

—Western Kentucky is 4-3 all-time in games played at Bridgestone Arena, boasting wins over No. 24 Vanderbilt (2009), No. 3 Louisville (2008), Auburn (2002) and Middle Tennessee (1998). The Hilltoppers’ last four games in the building have all been against ranked opponents.

—Western Kentucky is 58-61 all-time against current ACC members.

—Western Kentucky ranks fifth in the country in field-goal percentage (52.8), seventh in free throws made (132), 16th in 3-point percentage (41.1), 21st in free-throw percentage (78.6) and 24th in scoring offense (84.0 ppg). Louisville ranks second in field-goal percentage (53.0) and eighth in 3-point percentage (42.4).

—This is the first game of a new four-year deal between these two programs. Over the next three years, Louisville will host Western Kentucky twice and play one game in Bowling Green.

—Chris Mack is 1-0 all-time against Western Kentucky, beating the ‘Tops 90-64 on Dec. 5, 2015 when he was at Xavier.

—WKU has made 50 more free-throws (132) than its opponents have even attempted (82) through seven games.

—Louisville has shot 50 percent or better from the field in five of its six games this season. WKU has done the same thing in five of its seven games this season.

—Louisville is 6-1 all-time in neutral site games played in Nashville. The Cards’ only loss in the city came against Western Kentucky in 2008.

—Louisville has won 151 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of just four schools which have won 20 or more games on the court in each of the last 18 seasons (also Kansas, Duke and Gonzaga).

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 77, Western Kentucky 65