Louisville Cardinals (11-1, 2-0) at Kentucky Wildcats (8-3)
Game Time: 3:40 p.m.
Location: Rupp Arena: Lexington, Ky.
Announcers: Brad Nessler (play-by-play) and Bill Raftery (analyst)
Favorite: Kentucky by 2
Series: Kentucky leads 36-16
Last Meeting: Kentucky won 71-58 on Dec. 29, 2019 in Louisville
Probable Starting Lineups:
Kentucky’s Season to Date:
One of the six different teams to grace the top spot in the AP top 25 before January this season, Kentucky enters Saturday’s game against Louisville hoping to avoid just the second three-game losing streak of the John Calipari era. The Wildcats have been less than stellar since opening the year with a win over preseason No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic. UK has since taken two losses to sub-100 Ken Pom teams — at home vs. Evansville and on a neutral court against Utah in Las Vegas — as well as a hard-fought neutral court loss (71-65) against No. 5 Ohio State in its most recent outing.
Kentucky’s most notable issue so far doesn’t require a whole lot of explaining. The Wildcats have been a woeful shooting team, connecting on just 27.8 percent of their three-point attempts so far this season, good for 323rd in the country. Only one UK player is shooting better than 30.8 percent from beyond the arc, and that’s Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina (38.1 percent), who came off the bench to knock down five triples in the loss to OSU. Sestina played a season-high 32 minutes in that game, and figures to get significant run Saturday afternoon against Louisville as well.
Kentucky’s leading scorer and engine is sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans (13.9 ppg/7.3 apg). Despite being able to get to the rim seemingly at will, Hagans has struggled with finishing around the basket, a fact he has been able counteract by getting to the free-throw line consistently (61st in the country in free-throe rate), a place where he shoots 85.2 percent. Hagans is also a tremendous facilitator both on the break and in the halfcourt, where he assists on 43.7 percent of Kentucky’s made shots, the fifth-best assist rate in the country.
As is the case with every Calipari team, the effectiveness of his haflcourt dribble-drive offense relies primarily on having a capable floor general.
10 years of Kentucky dribble drive motion under John Calipari: pic.twitter.com/3V8Gy5Ikw1— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) September 26, 2019
Where Hagans is the most dangerous, however, is on the defensive end. He can sometimes get burned by gambling too much, but justifies it by coming up with a steal on 3.8 percent of UK’s defensive possessions, placing him in the top 100 nationally in steal rate. Hagans has notched two or more steals in each of Kentucky’s last six games, and had three that he turned into points on the other end against Louisville last season. With U of L’s point guards, especially starter Darius Perry, struggling with handling pressure in the Cards’ biggest games so far this season, this feels like the most important matchup on the floor for the visitors on Saturday.
The player that seemingly everyone associated with UK basketball agrees is the most naturally gifted on this year’s squad is sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey. Maxey exlploded for 26 points in Kentucky’s opening night upset if Michigan State, but hasn’t been able to capture that same magic since. He’s scored a combined 33 points in the Cats’ two most recent games, but like just about everyone else on Calipari’s roster, has really struggled from beyond the arc, misfiring on 18 of his last 20 attempts from three.
Calipari loves using multiple screens away from the ball for Maxey, both to get him open jump shots and to create space so he can get a head of steam on his way to the basket. Whoever draws the talented freshman will have Louisville’s toughest defensive assignment.
Despite having, relative to Cal’s past teams at Kentucky, extreme experience, post play has been an issue for the Wildcats this season. Junior Nick Richards (11.9 ppg/6.9 rpg) is a serious rim protector (2.3 blocks per game) who has been at scoring close to the rim against undersized defenders, but whose offensive game really slips when he’s asked to do more than that.
Sophomore E.J. Montgomery — who has ranked above Zion WIlliamson in 247 Sports’ final class of 2018 rankings — might have more natural ability than Richards, but he still has yet to show it. He has feasted on inferior opponents, but was more or less invisible in Kentucky’s games against Michigan State, Utah and Ohio State. If Richards and Montgomery once again start together in the frontcourt — a trend Kentucky fans seem almost universally opposed to — it may be the 6’10 Montgomery who draws the assignment of trying to slow down Louisville star Jordan Nwora.
While playing two bigs together has created some flow issues for Kentucky, it has also given Calipari more liberty to run the hi-lo stack set he loves so much.
Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley is Kentucky’s third starter who stands 6’3. Quickley has been “just ok” at seemingly everything he’s done this season outside of the free-throw line, where he shoots 93.5 percent. Quickley scored in double figures in each of Kentucky’s first five games this season, bit has hit that mark just once in UK’s most recent five games.
If Louisville fans are looking to point to this year’s primary “guy who had been struggling but goes nuts against Louisville” candidate, it could really be any Kentucky player besides Hagans and Maxey. Quickley certainly fits the bill, as do hit or miss reserves Keion Brooks, Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang.
One last thing Louisville has to keep an eye on defensively is Kentucky’s ability to get the crowd into a frenzy seconds after the opening tip. In a game where the Cards need to find their footing early on, this can’t happen:
7 times Kentucky has won the opening tip and scored off the ivo lob play under Calipari: pic.twitter.com/afndsG4sbL— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) July 20, 2019
Defensively, Kentucky has been one of the best teams in the country this season. Hagans is one of the best thieves in all of college basketball, and Kentucky’s interior size has limited opponents to 43.8 percent shooting inside the arc, good for 45th-best in the country. Despite Hagans’ steal prowess, the Wildcats on the whole don’t force a ton of turnovers. Like Louisville, they make their living on lengthy defensive possessions, forcing low percentage shots, and making sure their opponents don’t get second chance opportunities.
The Wildcats will play the same hard-nosed man-to-man defense that Calipari’s teams always play. It’s also safe to assume that they will shadow Nwora with multiple defenders much like they did against Michigan State star Cassius Winston on opening night.
Kentucky ball screen defense vs Cassius Winston, leaving 2 on the ball for as long as possible to get it out of his hands. Here they recover back to Tillman's pop by "X-ing out" with Sestina and Richards: pic.twitter.com/auLcWJimsy— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) November 6, 2019
Kentucky, like Louisville, has also been terrific so far this season with its transition defense. If either team is looking to run off of missed shots or live ball turnovers, they’re going to have their work cut out for them converting on the other end.
As was the case against Texas Tech two weeks ago, Louisville needs its best playmakers to create space against this challenging man-to-man defense. If guys like Perry and Nwora aren’t better at creating separation in this game than they were inside Madison Square Garden, then the Cards are going to need to be much better at knocking down challenged shots than they were in that game.
—Kentucky has won five consecutive home games against Louisville in this series. The Cardinals haven’t defeated the Wildcats in Lexington since Jan. 5, 2008.
—Louisville is off to an 11-1 start for the eighth time in the last 10 seasons.
—Louisville is 6-3 all-time against Kentucky in games where the Cardinals are ranked higher in the current AP top 25 poll than the Wildcats.
—Louisville’s No. 3 ranking is its second-highest for a game against Kentucky. The Cards were No. 2 in the most recent AP top 25 poll when they defeated the Cats in the original Dream Game in 1983.
—Kentucky is 51-13 under John Calipari in games following a loss.
—The last time Kentucky was riding a two-game losing streak entering the Louisville game was the 1989-90 season. The Cards won that game inside Rupp Arena, 86-79.
—Jordan Nwora needs 10 points to become Louisville’s 69th career 1,000-point scorer.
—Nwora’s 234 points scored this year are the most by a Louisville player through 12 games over the last 20 seasons. He leads the ACC in scoring (21.2 ppg) and ranks 18th in the nation.
—Favorites have failed to cover the spread in eight of the last 11 meetings between these two teams.
—Kentucky is 61-32 against top 25 opponents under John Calipari, and 12-11 against top five opponents.
—Louisville has won 161 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.
—Louisville ranks third in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.350), 24th in field goal percentage (.485), and eighth in scoring margin (+18.3).
—Kentucky has lost three consecutive games just once under John Calipari.
—Kentucky shoots 78.5 percent from the free-throw line as a team, good for 13th-best in the country.
—The Wildcats also rank in the nation’s top 40 in field goal percentage defense (38th, .385), rebound margin (33rd, +7.2), scoring defense (31st, 61.2) and assists-turnover ratio (37th, 1.24).
—Louisville has a 46-10 record in the month of December over the last seven years.
—Kentucky holds a 19-5 all-time advantage over Louisville in games played in Lexington.
—Louisville is 18-11 all-time (and 1-3 against UK) in games played on Dec. 28.
—Louisville has won 18 of its last 25 games played immediately after Christmas.
—Louisville has won 152 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 66, Kentucky 65