By LARRY VAUGHT
College basketball analyst Jay Bilas understands the hype for Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game and the passion both fan bases have for this rivalry. The ESPN analyst also knows many variables factor into who can win the game. However, Bilas doesn’t think it’s hard to project which player could be the key to his team winning.
“Julius Randle and Russ Smith. I don’t think Kentucky will win unless Randle is engaged and fully involved in the offense. Kentucky cannot just put its head down and drive Louisville. Randle has got to get the ball, and he has to want the ball in the right spots and play before he gets the ball,” Bilas said. “Smith is capable of taking over the game and getting 35. He is an incredible college player.”
Randle is averaging 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds (tied for third nationally) per game for Kentucky and shooting 54.4 percent from the field. However, he has a team-high 40 turnovers in 12 games. Smith is averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. He has 29 turnovers. Smith has shown the ability to score at the rim or from 3-point range, but he’s also had seven games with five or more assists after having only eight all of last season.
It could help Randle if Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the nation’s top shot blockers, can counter Louisville’s physical play with a solid overall performance. He’s averaging 4.17 blocks per game, fifth best in the nation, along with 9.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
“His mobility and agility are impressive. He has been terrific in blocking and changing shots,” Bilas said. “But he can be better in other aspects of the game. Once he accepts and embraces the physical challenge of bigger teams, he will be very good. Right now, physical play bothers him a bit.”
Two years ago UK beat Louisville in Rupp Arena and then met the Cards again in the Final Four semifinals. Could one or both of these teams be Final Four-bound again?
“The odds say no. But I still believe that both are among the four most talented teams. If the tournament started today, I’d say no, but Louisville would have the better chance. Thankfully, the tournament doesn’t start today,” Bilas said.