INDIANAPOLIS — Depending on whether you are a Kentucky fan or a Louisville fan, it’s easy to find reasons why your favorite team will win Friday night’s NCAA Midwest Region showdown here.
Kentucky beat Louisville 73-66 on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena. Since then, the Cardinals have won 20 of 23 games and many thought deserved to be better than a No. 4 seed. Kentucky never took off after that win over the Cardinals the way many expected and stumbled down the stretch of regular season play before finding new life in the postseason and knocking off No. 1 seed Wichita State last weekend.
One plus for Kentucky would seem to be rebounding. Kentucky is the second best offensive rebounding team in the country — and best left in the NCAA — thanks to Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Louisville has not been good on the defensive glass as it gives up offensive rebounds on 32.4 percent of all opportunities — 230th in Division I and only Connecticut among teams left in the NCAA was worse.
However, Montrezl Harrell has averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds over the last 10 games and shot 60 percent from the field. He had a double-double in both NCAA tourney wins. Against Kentucky, though, he managed just six points (he took only two shots) and four rebounds.
Louisville’s edge should be quickness with a smaller lineup.
“As far as quickness goes, I think we’ve also been doing a great job of our bigs hitting the glass as well,” Louisville All-American guard Russ Smith said. “And as far as Kentucky goes, I think they’ve been doing a better job handling pressure. So it’s all a matter of who is going to be the better team tomorrow.”
Louisville’s defense can also be suffocating at times as the Cardinals have held 16 of 36 foes to 60 or fewer points, including seven of the last 13. Louisville also has had at least nine steals in both NCAA tourney wins this year. Louisville has also taken care of the ball well with single digit turnovers in nine of the last 15 games.
Kentucky can counter with the best sustained 3-point shooting of the season in postseason play by Andrew Harrison, James Young and Aaron Harrison. They are a combined 43 percent from 3-point range and 78 percent at the foul line.
In the first meeting between the teams, Kentucky was 3-for-14 from 3-point range and Randle played just four minutes the second half due to leg cramps. He took no shots and had no rebounds after scoring 17 points and grabbing two rebounds in the first half.
“I don’t know if it was a mismatch or anything. I was just kind of feeling it,” Randle said. “Just my teammates did a good job of getting me the ball at spots where I can attack. I was just aggressive. As far as the cramping thing, I hope that’s behind me. I mean, I haven’t cramped in a little while. Knock on wood.”
Kentucky fans have to figure if Randle stays out of foul trouble, he can dominate inside, especially since the Cardinals no longer have Chane Behanan on the roster — and he was the best defender on Randle in the December game. But UK coach John Calipari warned that Louisville’s improved matchup zone could find a way to neutralize Randle.
Louisville was just 6-for-26 from 3-point range in the UK loss. Russ Smith was 0-for-5. Luke Hancock, who got plenty of open looks, was 2-for-8. While Smith has struggled shooting in the NCAA, Hancock is 6-for-17 from 3-point range. If they make 3-point shots this time, Louisville has to feel the outcome will be different.
With Randle watching the second half (he didn’t play the final 11 minutes), UK got stellar play from point guard Andrew Harrison. He had six points during a 15-4 run after Randle went out for good and finished with a then career-high 18 points.
Willie Cauley-Stein and James Young were also big contributors to UK’s win. Cauley-Stein had just two points, but he grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. Young was just 5-for-17 from the field, but he also got 10 rebounds.
“We’re completely different (than the first Louisville game). We’re not the same team,” Cauley-Stein said. “We are a lot better than we were that day. We’re more of a team now. We’re not playing as individuals any more. We’re sharing the ball. Everybody has found his own role and how to fill it. It’s all fit together finally. Nobody is doing their own thing. We’re a cohesive team now.”
Hancock feels the same way.
“I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point. A lot of changes to our team since then. And I think it’s been for the better. I think guys are kind of filling into their roles and know what they have to do to make our team better,” Hancock said.
Calipari thinks it could be another special game like UK’s win over previously unbeaten Wichita State Sunday because of the way both teams are playing.
“They’ve settled into a groove of how they’re going to play, how they’re creating shots for each other, how they’re creating turnovers,” Calipari said. “And when you watch them, they’re playing really good basketball. Everybody on their team has settled in to what they have to do for their team to win. They’re playing extremely hard and playing with great energy, playing physical, not afraid to bump and grind whether it’s inside/outside. They’re a good team. They’re a really good team. And, again, of all the teams left, they may be playing better than anybody.”