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Louisville-Western Kentucky preview: Cards welcome talented ‘Tops to town

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It should be a 40-minute showdown Tuesday night inside the KFC Yum Center.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 22 Saint Mary’s at Western Kentucky Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals (3-0) vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (2-1)

Wade Houston Tipoff Classic

Game Time: 6:05 p.m.

Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.

Television: ACC Network

Announcers: Mike Couzens (play-by-play) and Jimmy Dykes (analyst)

Favorite: Louisville by 4

Officials: Lee Cassell, A.J. Desai, Paul Szelc

Series: Louisville leads 41-39

Last Meeting: Louisville won 71-54 on Nov. 29, 2019 in Nashville

Series History:

Probable Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Western Kentucky’s Season to Date:

Defeated Northern Iowa, 93-87, on Nov. 25 (Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic)
Defeated Memphis, 75-69, on Nov. 26 (Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic)
Lost to West Virginia, 70-64, on Nov. 27 (Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic)

Relevant Videos:

About Western Kentucky:

With all due respect to Seton Hall, Louisville will likely be facing its toughest test (certainly its most talented test) of the young 2020-21 season on Tuesday when the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers come to the KFC Yum Center.

The ‘Tops are coming off an extremely impressive performance at the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic where they notched wins over likely NCAA tournament teams Northern Iowa and Memphis, and then took No. 11 West Virginia to the wire in the tournament championship game. They currently sit at No. 4 in the Mid-Major Madness top 25.

As was the case when the two teams squared off a year ago, Western Kentucky is led by one of the most talented centers in all of college basketball, Charles Bassey. No one expected the former five-star recruit to spend more than a few months in Bowling Green, but after a just ok freshman campaign, an injury ended his extremely promising sophomore season after only 10 games, forcing him to return to WKU for at least one more year.

Louisville may not face a more gifted big man this season than Bassey, which isn’t exactly ideal for a team missing its senior center and not currently starting a player taller than 6’8. The 6’11 Bassey enters Tuesday averaging career-bests in points (15.7), rebounds (10.0), and blocks (3.7). He’s an imposing physical specimen who has become a well-rounded scorer over the last year, but who still does his best work before receiving the ball in the post.

It’s going to be an awfully tough assignment for Jae’Lyn Withers or Aidan Igiehon or JJ Traynor or whomever to keep Bassey from setting up shot right around the rim without getting into foul trouble in the process.

Bassey is also a major deterrent at the other end of the floor, where he’s blocked 11 shots in only three games so far this season, the most of any player in the country. His seven blocks against Memphis were the most in a game by a WKU player since 2011. In that game, Bassey also became the 19th Division I player since 2010 to have a game with at least 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks. Foul trouble hasn’t been as much of an issue as you might expect for Bassey thus far in his college career, but he has picked up at least three in every game this year.

The only major weakness in Bassey’s game at the moment is his propensity for turning the ball over, something he’s done nine times in just three games so far this year. Expect Louisville to double the post after the catch not just to try and keep Bassey from scoring, but also to try and force him into a rushed decision that leads to a giveaway. It’s something they didn’t do much of a year ago.

A major problem for Western Kentucky last season when Bassey was healthy was that the other four Hilltoppers on the floor seemed to expect the big man to corral every defensive rebound available. As a result, the ‘Tops were extremely bad when it came to allowing second chance opportunities. That hasn’t been an issue so far this year, as WKU is giving up offensive rebounds on just 24.1 percent of their opponents’ missed shots, good for the 68th-best rate in the country.

As stellar as Bassey has been this season, he actually does not lead Western Kentucky in scoring. That honor belongs to former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Taveion Hollingsworth, who is pouring in 19.0 ppg. Hollingsworth, the all-time leading scorer in the history of Lexington high school hoops, smashed Courtney Lee’s freshman scoring record during his first season with the Hilltoppers, and then stepped up to lead WKU in scoring last season after Bassey went down.

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 once again be doing everything in his power to prove to Cardinal fans that the previous regime missed the boat by not offering him (he scored 16 against U of L a year ago).

The only issue with Hollingsworth — who is shooting 45.2 percent from the field this season — at the moment is his health. He suffered an arm injury last week in South Dakota, and will be a game-time decision according to head coach Rick Stansbury. Even with that said, I think it’s safe to expect to see the former Paul Dunbar star in uniform for this one.

The Western Kentucky player that everyone’s dad or grade school basketball coach loves the most is another former Mr. Kentucky Basketball, Carson Williams. The 6’5 senior forward actually slid over and played center for the Hilltoppers last season after Bassey’s injury, and enters Tuesday averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He’s a little bit like a mid-major Dwayne Sutton in that he scraps for everything and doesn’t look like he should be able to put up the types of numbers he does. The man doesn’t care how pretty it looks, he just cares about finding a way to get his job done.

One of the biggest areas of weakness for WKU in recent years has been the lack of a true point guard. They have one this season in grad transfer Kenny Cooper, who some Louisville fans may remember as the floor general who nearly led Lipscomb to an upset of the Cards two years ago. He’s still trying to figure out how he fits in with this team and has not shot the ball well at all so far this season, but he’s a lightning quick guard who sees the entire floor and can also be a pest on the defensive end.

If Louisville spends too much time focused on WKU’s other pieces, then Luke Frampton is the type of player who can absolutely light them up. The junior sharpshooter transferred in from Davidson where he became one of only two Wildcats ever to make at least 100 three-pointers in a single season. The only other Davidson player to do that is Stephen Curry. Frampton is 6-of-15 from beyond the arc so far this season.

Depth is a major, major asset for this Western Kentucky team, as they have nine players averaging double-digit minutes and are averaging 20.7 bench points per game. That’s not exactly great news for a Louisville team that currently has just eight healthy scholarship players. Senior guard Josh Anderson (7.7 ppg/3.7 rpg) and super talented freshman Dayvion McKnight (Kentucky’s most recent Mr. Basketball) will both have a large impact on whatever happens in Friday’s game. Anderson is a gifted athlete who has been a primary contributor for Western throughout his college career, but who has seen his minutes dip just slightly this season because of this team’s loaded bench.

Forget about the name on the front of the jersey, Western Kentucky has a power conference roster that would be competitive in any league in America. They may have their issues maintaining focus in C-USA play because their head coach has a reputation for overseeing those types of lapses, but in game’s like Tuesday’s where they will be undoubtedly fully focused, watch out.

Notable:

—Louisville has won 84 of its last 88 non-conference games at the KFC Yum Center, a mark which spans over the last 10 seasons.

—Louisville has won eight straight games against Western Kentucky. The Cardinals own longer active winning streaks over just 11 other opponents. U of L has not lost to the Hilltoppers since Nov. 30, 2008, when it dropped a 68-54 decision to WKU in Nashville.

—At 80 total games, Western Kentucky is the Louisville’s third most played opponent in program history. Only Cincinnati and Memphis have faced the Cardinals more times on the hardwood.

—Since the start of the 2017-18 season, WKU is 8-5 against Power Five conference teams. The Hilltoppers had seven total wins against Power Five teams from 2007-08 to 2016-17.

—Louisville has held its first three opponents below 40 percent shooting from the field (Evansville .298, Seton Hall .333, Prairie View .393). Last season, the Cardinals were 13th in the nation in field goals percentage defense (.389).

—Western Kentucky is 58-62 all-time against current ACC members.

—Louisville is 22-4 all-time in games played on Dec. 1, winning its last six on that date.

—Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury is 5-9 all-time against ACC opponents.

—Chris Mack is 2-0 all-time against Western Kentucky. In addition to last season’s win in Nashville, he also beat the ‘Tops 90-64 on Dec. 5, 2015 when he was at Xavier.

—In the first three games of the season, WKU has made 52 of 63 free throws (82.5%), while its opponents have made just 30 of 41 from the stripe. The Hilltoppers have made 41 of 53 free throws in the second half of their three games.

—Depth has been a strength for the Hilltoppers early this season. They have nine players averaging double-digit minutes and are averaging 20.7 bench points per game. Last season, WKU averaged 11.8 bench points per game. Its 42 bench points in the season-opening win over Northern Iowa were the program’s most since getting 47 points from the reserves against UAB on Feb. 27, 2016.

—Louisville, conversely, will only have eight healthy scholarship players available for Tuesday’s game. All but one of those players is a freshman or a sophomore.

—Louisville is averaging 41 points in the paint in the first three games, 53 percent of its scoring.

—Louisville is 139-80 all-time against current members of Conference USA.

—Inside the KFC Yum Center, Louisville has an overall record of 157-25, and a 92-6 mark against non-conference opponents. The Cards have won 48 of their last 51 home games against non-conference foes.

—Since 2004, Louisville is 124-0 when leading by more than 10 points at halftime.

—Louisville was 18-0 last season when scoring at least 71 points, and just 6-7 when failing to hit that mark. The Cards have hit the 71-point mark in each of their first two games this season.

—Louisville has won 162 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 155 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. Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas are the others.

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 75, Western Kentucky 68