Aaron Harrison (left) and his brother, Andrew, will try to help John Calipari beat Louisville in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. (Jeff Moreland/Icon SMI)
INDIANAPOLIS – In preparation for a rematch with in-state rival Louisville and the unremitting pressure that would come with it, Kentucky issued a directive to its scout team guards. During practice, fouls were not an option. They were mandatory. Every time one of the Harrison twins or fellow freshman James Young attempted to advance the ball, teammates grabbed arms and jerseys and hip-checked them with every bounce. It was a special exception to get conditioned for the abrasiveness of the Cardinals' guards, a tactic the Wildcats recalled only employing once before.
In December. The last time they played Louisville.
“James, I think, fell like three times in one possession,” Wildcats guard Jarrod Polson said with a smile. “We were trying to foul just hard enough to where they're not getting hurt.”
When Kentucky and Louisville, winners of the last two national championships, meet in the Sweet 16 on Friday, true animosity may be restricted to the fans populating Lucas Oil Stadium. The participants view it as merely the next game to win -- “We're playing for something bigger than the rivalry,” Wildcats center Willie Cauley-Stein said -- but that doesn't mean it will come easy. This is particularly true in the backcourt. Both sides will impose physicality in different ways, a black-and-bluegrass matchup that may determine months worth of bragging rights and more.
For the Wildcats, it is Andrew and Aaron Harrison with matching 6-foot-6 frames holding 215 and 218 pounds, respectively, and their dipped shoulders and arm bars and their expectation to draw contact on bullish drives to the lane. For the Cardinals, it is the smaller Russ Smith and Chris Jones – Smith is listed at 6-feet, Jones just 5-10 – and the frenetic, heavy-handed pressure that turns activating an offense against them into a chore, if not sheer torture. It is Kentucky and the seventh-best free throw rate in the country (53.3) against Louisville and the second-best steal percentage (14.6) in the nation. It is literal strength on figurative strength, with both backcourts in a rhythm neither had yet discovered when the Wildcats beat the Cardinals at Rupp Arena on Dec. 28.
“They're more physical now, they're mature guards now,” Jones said. “It's a struggle on both ends. A struggle for them because of our quickness and a struggle for us because of their height. But our zone is so good and our team defense is so good, and our rotations are great right now. We'll have to see. It's going to be a tough game.”
It probably is no coincidence that Kentucky found itself just as its starting freshmen guards found comfort in a certain way to play.
There are essential differences between the Harrison twins, Aaron insisted in the locker room Thursday: He likes his hair short and his brother prefers it long. Otherwise, it's mostly the same. The taste in food, movies ... and the overthinking that stifled their play earlier in the season. But a message coach John Calipari sent to the entire team drilled most deeply into the consciousness of his floor leaders: Play like you want to play. Making mistakes is fine, just don't dwell on them. “Coach kind of gave them the green light to do what they do that got you here, but more under control,” Cauley-Stein said. “That's the twins you're seeing now. All instincts. Really no thought about the game.”
For Aaron Harrison, it has been an awakening. He leads Kentucky with 17.8 points per game during the postseason, shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from long-range, with a team-high 15 three-pointers. “I stopped thinking about missing and making,” he said. “Just got my confidence back.”
Andrew Harrison has been less explosive but still steady, averaging 12 points in five postseason games with 27 assists against 21 turnovers. Reacting, instead of calculating, will be critical against Louisville pressure that smothers the first hint of indecision. And should the Harrisons manage that, they can begin battering the Cardinals' guards in the half-court, much like they did late in last Sunday's upset of the Midwest region's No. 1 seed, Wichita State. The Harrisons have combined for 53 free throw attempts in five postseason games, and they kept control against the Shockers by almost stiff-arming defenders and then barreling to the rim, putting the onus on officials to determine the flow of the game. Kentucky shot 19 of its 22 free throws in the second half.
"In the end they basically just lowered their head,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It seemed they were just driving it and we were having too much body contact. And for the first time this year, it seemed like the rules, the new rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor. So credit them."
The guards will also have to be especially careful with the ball. The Wildcats totaled just 11 turnovers in the first meeting this season, and Louisville's steal percentage for that day (8.7) was one of its six lowest rates of the year. Since, the Cardinals' game-by-game steal percentage has dipped below 10 percent just twice, and opponents have committed turnovers on at least 20 percent of possessions for 12 straight games.
It has been a cohesive approach that evolved over the three months since the teams last met. “We're totally different [now],” Jones said. “I didn't know most of the rotations on defense, I didn't know all the offensive plays.” Now the Cardinals all know what to do and what to expect. Getting in front of the Harrisons and cutting off driving lanes will be critical, but playing with quickness and sound footwork happens to be a Louisville specialty.
“They want to throw their bodies in to us, so we just have to wall up,” Jones said. “If you foul them, they're great free throw shooters. But if you just wall up, they'll take crazy shots, because they're looking for the foul so much.”
Louisville can also apply pressure offensively. The Cardinals outscored the Wildcats 26-10 on fast break points in the first meeting, exploiting transition defense that, as Caluley-Stein put it, has been Kentucky's “kryptonite the whole season.” Yet Smith has hit just 13 of 37 shots over his last three outings and the Cardinals seemed grateful for the time off between tournament weekends so Smith's accumulated bumps and bruises would heal. Jones claimed his backcourt mate has been “the Russdiculous that we know” during workouts, but that must manifest itself during the game on Friday.
“I like playing against anybody – slow guards, fast guards, quick guards,” Smith said. “Doesn't really matter to me. I was raised in New York. We had them all over there. It's more a smash-mouth style of basketball, so we'll have to be prepared for that.”
For all the breathlessness about the rivalry and the interest about which team will control the paint, everyone ought to be steeled for a game that will come down to guard play. Should one team push the other to the side Friday, it will clear a path that leads one step closer to a title.
[si_video id="video_52ECF481-AC9B-5DAF-6C65-F5213326DF73" height="500"]