PG Chris Jones VS PG Andrew Harrison
This is a spot where Louisville should have the advantage and where I think Louisville does have the advantage. Harrison hasn’t been exactly as advertised. He’s suffered many times this season at Kentucky. His body language and chronic turnover problems have been particularly bothersome to his Head Coach. He’s also lacked leadership, something that forced John Calipari to play Jared Polson at a critical point in Kentucky’s win over Belmont. When Polson came in, the attitude of Kentucky changed and he served as a great catalyst for the win. Personally, I believe that was more about what Harrison was not doing rather than what Polson was doing.
Chris Jones has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. He was expected to be good and was needed to be good to fill the void left by Senior Point Guard Peyton Siva — he’s exceeded those expectations. Its been his ability to come in and be a leader instantly that has been most impressive. His body control around the rim is also something that cannot be discounted – in particular it may pay huge dividends once he gets to the rim around the talented shot blockers of Kentucky.
The stat that tells all within this matchup is turnovers. Simply Andrew Harrison gives the ball away a lot. Chris Jones protects the ball well and seems to have a knack for forcing turnovers with his lightening quick hands on defense. Harrison will see multiple looks from Louisville. Russ Smith will guard him a considerable amount and it wouldn’t surprise me for him to receive early double-team looks to see how he reacts. In the end, he is boosting a 23.7% turnover rate. That is not good. It’s actually near the bottom half of the SEC for qualifying players. That is something that I believe will balloon against Louisville. Look for Louisville to throw many confusing looks at him early, I suspect that he gets rattled.
Advantage: Chris Jones
SG Russ Smith VS SG Aaron Harrison
This is a matchup where most believe Louisville have a huge advantage. While I agree that the Cardinals have an advantage here, I don’t believe it’s as wide as some have thought. Aaron Harrison often receives rough criticism that may exactly not be warranted, simply because he is lumped in with his twin brother – Andrew Harrison. In all reality, this Harrison has been pretty good at times for the Wildcats in 2013.
Boosting an offensive rating of 123.8% – good for second best on the team – he’s seemingly figured things out a bit quicker than his brother. He’s coming off his best game of the season in Kentucky’s win over Belmont. Harrison posted a season best 7 assists and dropped 23 points. Harrison is a smart basketball player. He can score, he can get to the rim and has shown the capabilities to distribute the ball nicely.
The problem in this matchup comes defensively. Russ Smith has proven to be one of the best offensive players in the Country. The last time he played Kentucky in Rupp Arena, he dropped an easy 30 points. Sure, it came in a loss but it was an early indicator that Russ Smith is more than capable of showing up on the big stage. The way this is shaping up, if Russ Smith wants to do that again – he could. The last time Harrison played a guard that resembled the talent of Russ Smith, Harrison gave up 23 points to Marcus Paige. The other problem for Harrison? Russ Smith is faster than Marcus Paige. Expect Russ Smith to get to rim easily Saturday afternoon. The only question will be if he can convert once he’s there.
Advantage: Russ Smith
SF Wayne Blackshear VS SF James Young
This is perhaps the most compelling matchup of the game, simply because their are so many unknowns. Both players have been quite streaky leading to more questions than answers. Part of me wants to think that Wayne Blackshear has finally gotten it together, but his disappearing acts in big games during points of his career are troubling. I want to think that James Young is the ‘real deal’ but he’s been so up-and-down, it’s hard to know who the real the James Young.
I’m simply mystified by this matchup.
If Wayne Blackshear outplays James Young, I believe Louisville could run away with this because it opens up the lanes for their deep crew of guards. Kentucky needs James Young to play well and I believe he will. Young is shooting a weary 25% from the field thus far in 2013. That’s largely due to his inconsistent shooting behind the three point line. When he gets to the basket or when he’s able to create his own shot, he’s shooting just over 50% on 2 point field goals. I’m giving to the advantage to Young because I believe his creativeness and speed will allow him ample looks against Blackshear. However, Young better bring it on defensively as well. If you leave Blackshear open, he’ll make you play as indicated by his team best 64% shooting from three-point land.
Slight Advantage: James Young
PF Montrezl Harrell vs PF Julius Randle
Like the Russ Smith vs Andrew Harrison, I believe this matchup is closer than others have indicated. Yes, Julius Randle is a fantastic Freshmen – in fact he may be the best. Yes, he’s posted 9 double-doubles this season. Yes, man for man, he has the matchup advantage over Montrezl Harrell. But, there is something that has to be particular bothersome to his Head Coach going into this matchup – his turnovers.
Randle is giving up the rock on more than 21% of the time. He had 5 against North Carolina and the Tar Heels have seemingly been the only team that have slowed him down scoring. This stat is more worrisome for Kentucky in this matchup for three reason: Montrezl Harrell has quicker hands, He’ll see plenty of double teams, and Louisville is the fourth best team in the Country, stealing the ball from their opponents more than 26% of the time.
Randle will still score his points. His beastly ability and creativeness makes that a near certainly. Montrezl Harrell can score points. Louisville doesn’t need him to do that. They need him to rebound. If he could somehow post a double-digit rebound effort Saturday afternoon, Louisville would easily defeat the Wildcats. While I don’t see that happening, I do think Harrell has the potential to disrupt Randle on both offense and defense. To do that he must be in the game, which may be a tall task as Randle is forcing his opponents into an average of 3.4 fouls per game.
Advantage: Julius Randle
C Mangok Mathiang vs Willie Cauley-Stein
This is the biggest advantage for the Kentucky Wildcats. This is also the only matchup you’ll find where it’s Louisville, not Kentucky lacking experience. Mathiang is leaps and bounds beyond where he was when Louisville took their lone loss to North Carolina earlier in the season. There he was in a state of flex. He lacked on defensive rotations and needed it to improve his offensive awareness. Since, then he’s improved quite a bit offensively and saw some steady growth on the defensively side of the ball.
I say that to say this. Willie Cauley-Stein’s growth from 2012 to 2013 has been remarkable. He’s quickly becoming one of the most improved players of the Calipari era at Kentucky. This is not the same player that was bullied at the Yum Center last season. Cauley-Stein has became a more polished player offensively, with an effective FG percentage over 64. He’s also carried on the trend of great shot blockers at Kentucky, ranking 10th best in the Country blocking and astounding 14% of shoots.
This matchup gets more compelling if Pitino opts to go smaller and use Chane Behanan here. Behanan has played some of his best basketball as of late, vaulting him into the second spot for average points per player on the Louisville roster. Chane Behanan has a chance to turn some heads with a positive showing. Otherwise – if Pitino sticks with Mathiang – it will be a tall order for him to slow down Cauley Stein.
Advantage: Willie Cauley Stein
If either team won this game by double digits I wouldn’t be shocked. There are many unknowns. Louisville has had one true test and failed. Kentucky has had three true opponents and failed. Louisville has experience and cohesiveness on their side. Kentucky has pure talent – untapped or not- on their side.
With that being said, I have to go with Louisville for one simple reason: Defense. Unfortunately for Kentucky to expose the advantage they have in the post, they must get past the initial wave of the Louisville Defense. That’s a tall order for a group of guards that have displayed immaturity and frustration at many times this season. Louisville do just enough to make that frustration appear.
With all that being said, the outcome of this game is rather simple: If Kentucky hits their free throws and takes care of the rock – they win. If Louisville rebounds decently well and guards the three – they’ll win.
Louisville 84 Kentucky 76
Russ Smith leads the way with 28 points and Wooden Award Voters take notice.
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