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He doesn’t really think Kentucky can win at Louisville Saturday, but Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy knows pregame assumptions often can be wrong.
The logic is that Louisville is just too experienced and deep for Kentucky this year, especially playing at home as it will be Saturday when it tried to end a four-game losing streak to the unranked Wildcats.
“That would be the assumption, but if the games were not played by human beings we would simply feed it all into a computer and then take those results at face value,” said DeCourcy. “Louisville has been terrific this year. Kentucky has not. Louisville responded to its adversity — Gorgui Dieng’s injury — by finding the means to beat quality teams like Charleston and Memphis on the road. Kentucky responded to its adversity — Ryan Harrow’s early absence — by struggling to find a rhythm.
“We could stop right there and let that stand, or we can play the game? Me, I’d rather see the game. I expect I know what will happen. I don’t believe Kentucky has evolved to the point where it will succeed against UL’s pressure or its zone. It’ll be intriguing to watch them try.”
It will be and whether No. 4 Louisville will be the best team UK has faced — both teams lost to No. 1 Duke — remains to be seen even though Dieng has been cleared to play after missing about a month of play.
“That’s a hard one to judge, without knowing how effective Dieng will be after a month layoff,” DeCourcy said when asked about the Cards being the best team UK has faced. “By the end of last year, Dieng was outstanding and Louisville was playing with confidence. At the end of 2005, when Calipari was coaching Memphis, the Cards were on the way to the Final Four although with less talent than this team owns.
“This team certainly has the potential to be better than 2005 or 2012 Louisville, but Calipari and Kentucky will be facing a less evolved team. Of course, he’ll be facing these Cards with a team that is very much a work in progress.”
Is DeCourcy seeing signs of progress with Kentucky and how important is this game for UK?
“That wasn’t a terrible Marshall team Kentucky blew out of Rupp Arena (last week). It wasn’t a good team, but to put a 28-point beating on the Herd was a step forward, especially with Harrow playing a significant role,” DeCourcy said. “Harrow is not what many UK fans imagined him to be, but he is starting to show he can be an effective player at this level.
“I think it’s honestly more important that he not wilt under UofL’s defensive pressure, that he play competently and effectively, than it is for UK to win. Without a victory over Louisville it’s not going to be easy for Kentucky to earn a comfortable NCAA Tournament seed given the relative weakness of the SEC. It is more important, though, for UK to be positioned to contend for the league title and take whatever seed comes with either winning it or coming close. To do that, they’re going to need Harrow to be good.”
He’s right because if the Cats do lose — and they are a decided underdog — that will be four losses already and it is going to be a difficult climb back even into the top 25. Even winning the SEC could position UK no better than maybe a six seed if it falls to Louisville.
DeCourcy still feels UK freshman Alex Poythress has more talent than any player who will play in Saturday’s game.
“But he’s still missing the drive to go with it,” DeCourcy said.
So who will be the best player on the court?
“The most accomplished player is (Louisville senior guard) Peyton Siva, the reigning Big East Tournament MVP. But the best player for either team to date has been (Louisville guard) Russ Smith, and I’m still astonished by that. I didn’t picture him as anything more than a change-of-pace player, but Rick Pitino has managed to turn him into a star,” DeCourcy said.
However, DeCourcy remains a huge fan of UK freshman center Nerlens Noel.
“I saw Noel in high school and wrote that the only reasonable comparison for the way he played was Bill Russell. I knew at the time it was a reach, and that it was unlikely Noel would one day win a dozen or so NBA championships (like Russell did with Boston). The point of a comparison is to draw a mental picture for readers of a player they haven’t seen, and that’s what Noel looks like when he guards: like a young Russell, with his long, spindly arms and legs and hunger to impact every defensive possession,” DeCourcy said.
“The only thing Noel has surprised me with is his eagerness to impact the game at both ends. I don’t view him as overwhelmingly skilled on offense, but he so wants to make a difference that he is willing and able to attack defenses just based on his speed, quickness and bounce. All that got Mason Plumlee (of Duke) in foul trouble. If Noel ever develops a reliable offensive weapon — a killer jump-hook or a 14-foot jumper — he’ll be an excellent NBA player,” DeCourcy said.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, he doesn’t have either of those tools yet and that’s why barring some kind of major surprise, the guess here is that Louisville does indeed win Saturday’s game.
In 147 minutes of play this season, Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow has just five turnovers — or one about every 30 minutes of play. Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith have combined for 62 steals in 680 minutes of play — or one about every 11 minutes of play.
Obviously, one of those numbers has to change Saturday when No. 5 Louisville hosts Kentucky when the Cardinals will be trying to beat UK coach John Calipari for the first time in five tries since he took charge of the Kentucky program.
Louisville’s veteran guards are a big reason the Cardinals lead the nation in turnover margin. As a team, Louisville has 141 steals in 12 games compared to 88 steals in 11 games for UK. Louisville has committed 154 turnovers, Kentucky 135.
“We are just going to play our game,” said Harrow. “That’s all I have to say about the Louisville guards. As long as we play our game, we will be alright.”
Will he have to change his style of play against Louisville’s pressure defense?
“Not really. I haven’t even seen them play this year,” Harrow said after UK’s win over Marshall Saturday. “I am just worried about our team and how we are improving.”
Calipari thought playing a physical, veteran team like Marshall that did not back down from UK was the kind of game his team needed. However, he insisted that was not meant to indicate he was thinking forward to Louisville after the Marshall win.
“Who are we playing next week?” Calipari said before being told it was Louisville. ‘We’re playing Louisville? Whoa, that’s going to be a hard game.”
Hard game? It could be a brutal game. It will be only Kentucky’s second true road game and the Cats wilted at Notre Dame in an atmosphere that was hostile, but likely nothing compared to what the YUM Center will be like Saturday. Not only is this a huge rivalry game,b but Calipari is 4-0 against Louisville and coach Rick Pitino in three years at UK. Last year UK beat Louisville in the Final Four. Two years ago Calipari brought his underdog Cats to Louisville and Josh Harrellson blossomed into a national star during UK’s stunning win.
“I’m worried about my team right now,” Calipari said after the Marshall game. “Believe me when I tell you, I’m not worried about anybody we’re playing. I’m worried about my team. If we go in and Louisville is way better than us, we move on to the next game.
“We’re going to go in, we’re going to play our game. We’ve gotten better. Is that good enough? I don’t know. They’ve got a veteran team. They’ve got everybody playing well. They’re beating everybody by 30 and 40. Hard game for us. They’ve got terrific players, really good players. Hard game for us. I’m worried about us getting better.
“What Marshall did for us physically, they had confidence, they have a swagger. We couldn’t make shots and they’re looking at it like, ‘We’re in this,’ and they were. They come out at half, do what they did to us, exactly what we needed. We needed to go against a big, physical team to see if we got tougher in the last two weeks. Last game, it did not carry over, all the work. This game it did. So that’s why I’m happy.”
But will he be happy Saturday? Louisville fans think not and so do most college basketball analysts. Louisville seems a bit deeper, more experienced and more physical. However, Calipari certainly seems like he’s content with whatever lies ahead.
“We’re a long way from home. But it shows that this team, and I keep saying — this team has more upside than any team in the country. We’re going to have games where we don’t shoot it well. Doesn’t matter. If you defend, you’re tough, you’re rough, create shots for each other, you’re going to be fine,” Calipari said. “There’s going to be games where we’re on the road, we get a little rattled. If we’re going to be the team I think we can be, that’s going to hit us and we’re going to adjust and grind it out and play better.”
Yet doing that at Louisville Saturday could be a lot easier said than done.