The Louisville Men’s basketball program has had plenty of success over the past decade, but one thing it has not been able to do is beat its rival Kentucky consistently.
The third ranked Cardinals head to Rupp Arena on Saturday looking for their first win in Lexington since January of 2008, when they won by 14 points in Billy Gillespie’s first season as head coach of UK.
Since John Calipari moved up from Memphis in 2009, Louisville has won only twice in 12 total games against its biggest rival. The two wins (both at the KFC Yum! Center) came during the 2012-13 and 2016-17 seasons. Kentucky has won all five games at Rupp Arena and beat the Cards twice in the NCAA tournament.
This time around, Kentucky comes into the game losers of two straight and all the way down at 19th in the AP poll. Louisville sits at 11-1 and resides at 3rd in the rankings. After a decade of rivalry games that have been owned by the Wildcats, the Cards are looking to head into the 20’s on a high note.
Kentucky is currently 8-3 after two losses in Las Vegas last week to Utah and Ohio State. They have four double digit scorers, led by the backcourt duo of Ashton Hagans (13.9 pts, 7.3 asts and 2.1 stl per game) and Tyrese Maxey (13.1 pts, 4.1 reb, 3.1 ast.).
It has been a peculiar season in Lexington. The backcourt is definitely considered the strong point of this roster and much deeper than the frontcourt. As a team, though, the Cats are shooting 27.8 percent from three-point range. That’s good for 323rd in the nation. They are 339th in three point attempts. When they’ve won, they’ve done it by playing great defense while forcing turnovers and holding onto the ball.
Louisville’s only loss so far this season came to Texas Tech on a neutral court earlier this month, and it’s a game that felt similar to this contest heading into it. Like UK, Tech was a highly rated preseason team who had struggled to start the year. Louisville pretty clearly had the best player on the court in Jordan Nwora. Louisville logically looked like the better, deeper and more experienced team on paper. That game went disastrously as Nwora got held to a quiet 14 points, Texas Tech completely locked down Louisville defensively and won without really looking impressive on offense themselves.
On Saturday, Louisville’s guards come into play as the big question mark. In the Cards’ only two real marquee games on the season, the backcourt has not given them much at all offensively. Darius Perry scored 6 points total in the two games against Michigan and Texas Tech and was nearly unplayable in the loss. Ryan McMahon has been good this season but he needs to be making shots to bring value to this team. It will be interesting to see what Coach Mack does rotation wise with the guards. Ashton Hagans is one of the better on ball defenders in America and killed Darius last season in UK’s 13-point win in Louisville. Perry finished with 5 turnovers in 15 minutes.
If Louisville is going to exorcise its demons and win in Lexington, it appears that it will have to do so with its frontcourt play. The Cards have the clear advantage inside with Steven Enoch and Malik Williams rotating at center. Dwayne Sutton has not played well in two career games against UK, but he has a real opportunity to be a difference maker inside this time. Kentucky has been a good rebounding team, but the bigs have not been able to score in the paint at all against power conference competition. If Louisville can limit second chance points and set the tone down low offensively, they’ll be in good spot.
Louisville does not need a crazy game from its guards to win. They just need the backcourt to not kill them. They must hold onto the ball and limit fast break points for UK. They also have to be able to get the ball inside and let the frontcourt do its job.
For Kentucky, they will win if they force turnovers, stop the ball from getting into the paint, and if they hit some timely three pointers. Nate Sestina is the only UK player shooting better than 31 percent from deep and he just went 5-8 from long range last weekend against Ohio State. Everyone has been saying it, but if he mimics that performance in this game Louisville is in real trouble.
To recap, Louisville is probably the more well rounded team. Kentucky has the advantage in the backcourt, but Louisville has the superior forwards and centers. Jordan Nwora is pretty obviously the best college player on either team. Kentucky, however, is playing at home and needs this win more than its opponent.
This rivalry is among the best in the entire country and the game is as intense as any other regular season game that will be played in college basketball this season. While UK has often had better teams, they have just gotten up for this game in a way that Louisville has not been able to this past decade. On Saturday, head coach Chris Mack and co. have an opportunity to show that the past is the past, and that moving forward the Cards aren’t going to be pushovers in the Battle of the Bluegrass.
The game tips at 3:45 p.m. ET and will be televised live on CBS.
— Louisville Basketball (@LouisvilleMBB) December 28, 2019