Position-By-Position: Does Louisville have horses to top UK?
The Battle for the Bluegrass State heads south on Saturday, as Kentucky and Louisville faceoff in New Orleans for the right to play for the national title. The Wildcats beat the Cardinals 69-62 on New Year's Day in a battle that wasn't quite as close as the final score indicated. If Louisville is to win on Saturday it will need to play a similar game -- slow and ugly. How does Louisville stack up this time around? Here is a position-by-position breakdown:
Peyton Siva is Louisville's most important player. He's the Cardinal's best playmaker and the one who has the ball in his hands at the end of the shot clock. He also doubles as one of the Cardinals' best perimeter defenders and a key component to their full-court pressure. It should come as no surprise that Louisville has been playing their best basketball late in the season as Siva has found the rhythm that he was missing. That said, Marquis Teague has grown as much as any player in the country this season. Early on, he struggled with turnovers as the Wildcats were looking to play a more up-tempo style. During conference play, John Calipari significantly slowed down the pace, and Teague thrived, building his confidence and learning what it takes to be a point guard at this level. If this ends up being a close game, the point guard spot could be the X-factor that determines the outcome.
Doron Lamb could also be a significent factor. Louisville likes to play zone, but the reason the Cardinals were forced to come out of it against Florida -- and the reason that Florida was able to build its big first-half lead -- is that the Gators were hitting threes. Kentucky is not loaded with shooters, but Lamb is one of the best in the country. Kentucky will need him to hit the open looks that he gets to keep Louisville's zone from sagging. Lamb will be matched up with Russ and Chris Smith at the other end of the floor. Chris Smith is a capable shooter and a quality role player in Louisville's rotation, but the more important matchup will end up being with Russ Smith. The diminutive sophomore is Louisville's sparkplug off the bench.
Simply put, Louisville does not have anyone who can match up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Few have this season, but the Cardinals are going to find themselves at a severe disadvantage. What MKG provides the Wildcats is a spark in transition. No one in the country is more dangerous than he is in the open floor, as he can get up and down the court with the quickness of a point guard and finish around the rim with the efficiency of someone four inches taller. MKG is also a terror in the paint, both on the glass and in the post. He's as strong as any small forward in the country. Louisville will be playing a lot of zone against the Wildcats, but if the Cardinals are forced to go man -- as they were against Florida -- it will be interesting to see if Kyle Kuric and company will be able to contain Kidd-Gilchrist. At the other end, Kuric has struggled with shooting this season, but when he gets into a rhythm he is as dangerous as anyone.
Giving Kentucky the advantage at the power forward spot comes with a very large if -- if Terrence Jones decides to show up. Jones has been one of the most enigmatic players in the country during his two seasons in Lexington. He's talented enough to be a first-team All-America, but moody enough to disappear for games at a time. Over the course of the last two months, Jones has been playing with great effort. Case in point: During Kentucky's massive run in the first half against Baylor on Sunday, Jones had six boards, six assists, three blocks and just one field goal attempt. When he plays like that -- as a rebounder and a distributor unconcerned with the number of shots he gets -- Kentucky becomes more dangerous. On the other hand, if Jones decides not to show up, this matchup swings heavily in favor of Louisville. Chane Behanan has proved to be quite capable, and he's playing as well as he has all season. He's averaged 14.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in the games leading up to the Final Four, and if he is matched up against Kyle Wiltjer with Jones out of the game, he's strong enough to take advantage.
Anthony Davis is the national player of the year and provides so much for Kentucky, and not just on the defensive end. Not only is he stepping out and knocking down jump shots, but his length and athleticism also allows him to be an outlet around the rim; when Kentucky gets in trouble penetrating, all it has to do is put the ball near the rim and Davis will finish it with a dunk. But the advantage in this matchup is not as big as you might think, as Gorgui Dieng has proved to be nearly as valuable on the defensive end of the floor as Davis. He blocks shots, he rebounds and he won't be giving up much length to the future No. 1 overall pick. Where this matchup might end up being determined is in the ability of these two to defend the pick-and-roll. Louisville made its late run against Florida when Rick Pitino made the switch to have Chane Behanan exclusively defend the pick-and-roll. Davis will be tested as Louisville puts Siva in pick-and-roll situations as much as any guard in the country.
Contrary to popular belief, the Cardinals are not actually that much deeper than Kentucky. With the injuries that they have sustained throughout the year, their rotation has been significantly trimmed. The difference? Louisville's bench provides more quality minutes, whereas John Calipari is usually forced to go deeper than six players, either through foul troubles, injuries or fatigue. Russ Smith is the guy who will get all of the attention. He may commit some turnovers and force a couple of bad shots, but he's a sparkplug who has the ability to change the course of a game when he steps on the floor. The 30 points he had in their first matchup is the sole reason that Louisville didn't get embarrassed. Kentucky does have its own valuable sixth-man in Darius Miller. He's UK's glue guy, contributing where he's needed on a given night -- perimeter shooting, playmaking, defense -- and has hit as many clutch shots this season as anyone in the country.
There is little question that John Calipari is better at running a college basketball program right now that Rick Pitino is. There is a reason that Kentucky has hoarded enough talent to roll through the NCAA tournament and into the Final Four as a heavy favorite. But being able to stockpile NBA talent doesn't make Calipari a great in-game coach. Pitino made two defensive adjustments in the Elite Eight: the Cardinals ditched their zone and went man-to-man in the second half against Florida, and when the Cardinals started to get beaten by the pick-and-roll, Pitino again adjusted the defense so that Dieng would defend the rim, while Behanan would man the perimeter. The last time that Kentucky played a close game? The Wildcats were befuddled by a 2-3 zone that Vanderbilt threw at them in the final minutes of the SEC title game. The added intrigue here is that all the pressure is on Calipari. He has never won a title and believes that his legacy at Kentucky will be compared to Pitino's. He's also coming in with the overwhelming favorite, a team with potential first-round draft picks at every position on the floor.