John Calipari said, when speaking on the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville, “Everybody makes it life or death and it’s not life or death. It’s worse than that.” Wednesday night we get the opportunity to see two great, extremely different basketball teams take the court in one of the premier games of the season so far. Kentucky is coming off a Malik Monk game-winning shot against North Carolina, in arguably the best game of the season to date. This caps their record at 10-1, with their only loss to a very good UCLA team. Louisville shares the same 10-1 record as Kentucky but does not have as strong of a resume. They are the winners of five straight but should be tested in the next four games, all against ranked opponents. However, this rivalry always makes this game feel a little extra special.
On one hand we have a team, in Kentucky, that has the ability to score at will. On the other hand, we have a team that prides itself in playing terrorizing pressure defense. This is a game where these rivals get to match their strengths against each other. It should make for a close battle that will go down to the wire.
Kentucky is paced by the outstanding freshman Malik Monk (21.9), who is making his case for not just the best freshman in the country, but also to be a lottery pick when the NBA Draft comes around. John Calipari’s offense runs through two more guards, De’Aaron Fox (15.9 ppg) and Isaiah Briscoe (15.9 ppg). Fox might be the fastest player in the nation and should be able to penetrate Louisville’s pressure on defense. Briscoe, who has made great offensive strides since last year, is playing extremely efficient basketball, even though he hasn’t figured out the three-point shot yet. Kentucky, who goes ten men deep, is rounded out by freshman Bam Adebayo (12.6 ppg), Mychal Mulder (7.8 ppg), Derek Willis (6.9 ppg), and Wenyen Gabriel (6.5 ppg). I think Louisville will not let Malik Monk repeat his 47 point game that he had against North Carolina, and, therefore, it will be important for others to step up. Willis is my X-factor for Kentucky as his ability to spread the floor could move Louisville’s big bodies away from the hoop.
Louisville prides itself on defense, but has two guards that can affect the game in many ways. Donovan Mitchell (11.7 ppg) and Quentin Snider (11.0 ppg) are the two guards that control this Louisville team, and although neither are extremely efficient, they do rebound and pass the ball well, as well as play the defense expected by Rick Pitino. Besides these two guards, Louisville has the ability to shuffle their many big men, including Deng Adel (9.7 ppg), Jaylen Johnson (9.5 ppg), VJ King (7.9 ppg), Ray Spalding (7.3 ppg), and Mangok Mathiang (6.8 ppg). There is an abundance of size, length, and athleticism on this Louisville squad who will be successful if they can fluster Kentucky’s guards and force turnovers. However, against the Wildcats it will be important for Louisville to establish an alpha male in this game, either Mitchell or Snider.
While this will be a scrappy, hard fought game, I think Kentucky’s guard play will overpower Louisville’s strong defense. Even if one of their three guards does not play well, they still have the two best players on the court. Louisville’s pressure can greatly affect poor ball handling teams, but this is the exact opposite, as it is a team with three guards who play at a top level of basketball. Another important factor is Briscoe’s experience. Rarely does Calipari have returning players who make an impact, but Briscoe should know what to expect from this rivalry game. While Kentucky is not a great defensive team, Louisville does not have that “go-to” guy on offense, and this should hurt them when they need buckets late in the game. Kentucky takes this one, in a game that we will make us wish these teams played twice a year.
Prediction: Kentucky 75, Louisville 63