INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This might be the biggest matchup between a No. 4 seed and a No. 8 seed that we’ve ever seen. Granted, neither Louisville nor Kentucky was given a high enough seed, but nonetheless, here we wait for what could potentially be the best game of the tournament with regards to talent thus far. Kentucky has a roster filled with one-and-done NBA-level talent, and the potentially dynastic Cardinals are gearing up for a run that will vault the team and head coach Rick Pitino into the annals of college basketball. The way Kentucky turned it on against top-seed Wichita State shows that they are peaking at the right time, while Louisville came into the NCAA Tournament hot off of a conference tourney championship in the American. After ugly wins against Manhattan and Saint Louis, Louisville is getting their feet under them, and their defense is so air tight that any mistakes are quickly seized upon and exploited. It’s that defense that will frustrate the youthful Wildcats and, eventually, lead to Louisville moving on to the Elite Eight.
A lot of people called Kentucky over Wichita State (cough-me-cough), and those people were justified in thinking that the Shockers, despite being unbeaten until last Sunday’s game, could be taken out by Calipari’s Wildcats. To be fair to Wichita State, Kentucky showed up with fire in their belly, and played a hell of a game. Shooting 54 percent from the field, pulling down ten offensive rebounds, and shooting over 44 percent from three-point land as a team, they were going off as a unit. Four players scored 13 or more points for Kentucky, and they will need that type of game against the defense-minded Cards if they hope to stay alive.
It might seem like something is wrong with Louisville. After two tournament games that certainly had Louisville fans sweating bullets, but March Madness is anything but a cake walk and the Cardinals did what champions do; they found a way to win and closed out strong in both contests. Now, some might point out how last year’s Louisville team decimated everyone they came up against through Elite Eight play (including giving Coach K his largest margin of defeat ever in the tournament), but that was a different team.
They lost size with the departure of 6’11″ center Gorgui Dieng to the NBA, leaving the bulk of the interior defense to the sometimes-undersized Stephan Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell. Whatever they lack in inches, they make up for in defensive tenacity, with Van Treese snatching up rebounds like he’s playing Hungry Hungry Hippos and Harrell spiking weak shot attempts with regularity. Plus, with the emergence of Harrell as a force on the offensive side, the Cards have successfully filled the void left by Dieng. Pitino certainly knows what an integral part of the team’s offense will be fed through Harrell, with his improved jumper and footwork around the basket (not to mention his thunderous dunks) making him a constant double-team assignment. He looks like Blake Griffin coming out of Oklahoma, constantly getting better, uber athletic, and expanding his game to encompass more action away from the basket. And against a longer Kentucky squad, he will be the linchpin in containing the likes of Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein. That, along with of course, the leadership of Naismith Trophy finalist Russ Smith’s leadership on both ends of the floor.
So many factors make this game a must-watch event. Pitino is 16-0 in the Sweet Sixteen, while Calipari is 5-1 against Louisville since joining Kentucky. The Wildcats also beat Louisville 73-66 in non-conference play earlier this season, a game Pitino and his players are doubtlessly watching all week leading up to Friday.
If the ‘Cats can overcome the Cards, it wouldn’t just bust more than a few brackets, it would shift focus to an 8-seed that could win it all.
It might appear that Kentucky has this one in the bag, or at least in their favor, but the Cardinals are on a mission to hang another championship banner in the rafters at the KFC Yum! Center.
The game takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday at 9:45 ET, and you can be sure that seas of red and blue will fill the stadium to its capacity.