Andrew Harrison (5) says recent losses have given the Wildcats a chip on their shoulders. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
One of the slowest weeks of the college hoops season will get a lot more interesting on Saturday when No. 2 Syracuse squares off with No. 8 Villanova (2 p.m. ET, CBS) and No. 6 Louisville takes on No. 18 Kentucky (4 p.m. ET, CBS). One and One offers four storylines to consider in the lead-up to these marquee matchups:
1. Is this a “must-win” for Kentucky?
It’s hard to remember the last time a Kentucky-Louisville regular season game felt as highly anticipated as this one.
The Wildcats, losers of two of their last four games, put to rest in November the 40-0 speculation that was liberally tossed about during the preseason, and some people are beginning to question whether coach John Calipari’s approach to recruiting and player development – bring in a handful of super-talented freshmen, get them to buy into the team concept, send them off to the NBA Draft, rinse, repeat – is viable over the long run. This game alone won’t determine whether it's true or not, but it could provide the answer to a different question: is it possible that Kentucky is now underrated?
“I think now we have a chip on our shoulder,” point guard Andrew Harrison told TheLouisville Courier-Journal on Dec. 20. “Coming into the season, people tried to put us up there with the greatest team ever, whatever. But now we have a chip on our shoulder and now we have a reason to play harder. We have stuff to prove, so that’s what we’re gonna try to go do.”
A win over Louisville would help ease some of the angst that Big Blue Nation has felt about its favorite team through 12 games this season. But taking down the defending national champion Cardinals–even at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky has lost just twice under Calipari–won’t be easy. Louisville ranks first in the country in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency, and boasts an efficiency margin of 0.279 points per possession–comparable to the number (0.31) it posted last season. The Cardinals are also considerably more experienced than the Wildcats; four of their top-five minute-getters (Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Montrezl Harrell, Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan) are either juniors or seniors.
Louisville has looked like the better team so far this season, but it hasn’t played nearly as tough a schedule as Kentucky's and it lost its only challenging game (a neutral court tilt with no. 19 North Carolina). Saturday’s matchup, a true road game, should be an even bigger test for Rick Pitino’s team.
It sort of feels like the Wildcats–in their last opportunity to earn a signature win before beginning a mostly weak SEC conference schedule–need to win this one, though I would stop short of calling it a “must-win.”
We haven't even reached January yet.
2. Can Kentucky limit turnovers?
One of Kentucky’s biggest flaws so far this season has been its propensity to turn the ball over. The Wildcats have given away 18.8 percent of their possessions to the opposing team. More specifically, point guard Harrison leads the team in turnover percentage (23.7), and freshman forward Julius Randle isn’t far behind (21.7).
These mistakes play right into Louisville’s biggest strength: relentless, turnover-forcing, pressure defense. The Cardinals are forcing opponents to cough up the ball on 26.7 percent of their possessions, the second highest rate in the country, and they rank sixth nationally in steal percentage (14.0).
Harrison, Randle and the rest of the Wildcats will need to avoid errant passes and dribbling into traps. Harrison could have the biggest challenge on his hands, as two of the Cardinals’ major backcourt contributors, Chris Jones (4.7 percent) and Russ Smith (3.6) have created steals at rates that rank among the nation’s top 135.
Points won't come easy in this classic battle of traditional rivals with top defenses. (Nate Shron/Getty Images)
3. A Big East rivalry in name only
The last time Syracuse and Villanova faced one another outside of Big East competition was in 1980. The Wildcats still belong to the Big East, albeit a vastly different one than the league it joined 33 years ago, while Syracuse is playing out its first season as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Fortunately, the teams decided to keep their rivalry alive outside of conference play. Syracuse hosts Villanova on Saturday, the Orange will visit the Wildcats next season, and the teams will play at Madison Square Garden in 2015-16.
Saturday’s game at the Carrier Dome should feel a lot like the heated league battles that Syracuse and Villanova waged for so many years in Big East play. "It's funny we're playing this game now,'' Wildcats coach Jay Wright told the Syracuse Post-Standard on Thursday. "It feels like we're playing an early season conference game. You know it's not the same, but everything's so familiar.''
Both teams are undefeated, ranked in the top-10 of the Associated Press Poll, and championship contenders in their respective conferences. It’s not shocking that Syracuse, ranked eighth in the preseason AP Poll, made it to this game undefeated. Villanova, meanwhile, began the season unranked and was picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll.
Through 11 games, no Big East team has looked better than the Wildcats, who have beaten no. 16 Kansas and Big Ten contender Iowa and blitzed their three Big 5 opponents (Penn, St. Joe's and LaSalle). The Orange notched three solid neutral court wins (over Minnesota, Cal and no. 11 Baylor) on the way to winning the Maui Invitational, beat Indiana at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and outlasted St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
This game won't have an impact on the Big East standings, but it should have the intensity of a conference game. Whichever team comes out on top on Saturday will have a very nice win to tack onto its resumé right before the start of conference play.
4. A defensive battle looms
Points could come at a premium in this matchup, as Villanova (2) and Syracuse (28) both rank in the nation’s top-30 in defensive efficiency.
The Wildcats will need to shoot well from beyond the arc against Syracuse's stingy 2-3 zone, which has allowed opponents to shoot 34.3 percent (191st in the country) and score 35.1 percent of their points (eighth highest percentage in the country) and 1.029 points per possession (according to Synergy scouting data) on three point shots.
Villanova is used to firing away from deep; it ranks seventh in the country in three-point rate and has scored 31 percent of its points this season from beyond the arc. Of Villanova’s players who have taken at least 25 threes this season, freshmen Josh Hart (40 percent) and Kris Jenkins (37.9), sophomore Dylan Ennis (38.5), and junior Darrun Hilliard (39.2) have been the most accurate.
The Orange will have a size advantage in the frontcourt, but will need backcourt starters Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis to continue the consistently effective offensive play they’ve provided so far this season.
Speaking of Ennis, he will face brother Dylan on Saturday for the first time in a college game that counts. “The competitor in me overshadows the brother in me,” Dylan told The Delaware County Daily Times on Thursday. “He’s my brother for 364 days a year, but that one day that we’re playing, he’s the enemy.”
Whether or not the Ennis brothers spend long stretches guarding one another, watching them square off in one of the biggest non-conference games of the season should be interesting.
Statistical support for this post provided by Kenpom.com.