National Semi-Final, New Orleans, LA
(1) Kentucky Wildcats (36-2) vs. (4) Louisville Cardinals (30-9), 6:09 pn EDT - Seriously, does it get any better than this?
Two storied programs located just 69 miles apart in the great state of Kentucky, Louisville and Kentucky will meet for the 44th time in their shared histories in a series that dates back to 1913, the year the Federal Reserve was formed.
The Wildcats hold the series edge, 29-14, with the most recent meeting being earlier this season, on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2011, when Kentucky escaped with a 69-62 home win at Lexington.
The programs and their coaches - Louisville's Rick Pitino and John Calipari - are no strangers to the Final Four. Kentucky has been there 14 times, Louisville, eight. The Wildcats' last Final Four appearance was in 2011; the Cardinals last made it into the Final Four in 2005.
The coaches will get plenty of attention in this match-up, as they are two of the greatest of all time. Rick Pitino, 26 years a college basketball coach, has a career record of 627-229, for a .732 won-loss percentage. Since 2001, Pitino has been head coach of Louiville, where he's compiled a record of 275-105. He's guided teams to the Final Four six times, and this will be his second Final Four appearance as coach of the Cardinals.
Ironically, Pitino won his only national championship when he was head coach of Kentucky, a position he held from 1989 through 1997, winning the national championship in 1996. A year later, he left the Wildcat program and headed down the road to Louisville after racking up a record of 219-50 in Lexington.
John Calipari has a similar resume. In 20 years of coaching, he's amassed a career record of 545-154, a winning percentage of .780. His earlier stints at Massachusetts (193-71) and Memphis (252-69) led to his hiring as head coach of Kentucky, replacing Tubby Smith in 2009. In just three seasons with the Wildcats, Calipari has produced a record of 100-14, the best of any Division 1 coach during that span.
Calipari is becoming quite the regular at the Final Four, having taken Kentucky there last season, losing in a semi-final game to eventual national champion, Connecticut, 56-55. He took Memphis there in 2008 and UMass was a Final Four team in 1996 under his guidance. Calipari has never won a national championship, though he came awfully close with Memphis in 2008, losing to Kansas, 75-68, in the national final.
The two used to be good friends, though lately, the descriptions of their acquaintance have ranged from "frenemies" to rivals to unfriendly associates.
While the sidecourt drama will be something of a sideshow to the main event on the court, the players will ultimately decide which team advances to the title game, and here, Kentucky seems to have a large advantage.
According to the latest line, Kentucky is an 8 1/2 point favorite over the Cardinals, a number that may well add more fuel to the underdogs' fire.
The Wildcats have a decided height advantage, with freshman Anthony Davis patrolling the lane along with fellow frosh Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Terrence Jones. David stands 6'10", Jones, 6'9" and Kidd-Gilchrist, 6'7".
By contrast, the Louisville front line has center Gorgui Dieng at 6'11", who, like Davis is a ball-swatter and shot-changer, but after that the height drops off dramatically. Freshman Chane Behanen is only 6'6", but his bulky 250-pound frame allows him to bang with the big men. The usual Louisville lineup will feature three guards, though Kyle Kuric, a 6'4" swingman who does most of his scoring from the perimeter, isn't going to help out much on the boards or in the paint. The disparity in size - on paper, at least - gives Kentucky a huge inside advantage.
In the back court, there's no faster player than Louiville's senior point guard Peyton Siva, who will match up with larger rivals, either Marcus Teague, the starter or Darius Miller, who is a real spark off the bench. Siva will likely play at least 36 minutes, while Teague can get plenty of rest, so in this match-up, Siva, who is in exceptional condition, may be worn down by the time the game reaches the crucial last four or five minutes.
The shooting guards are somewhat of a stand-off. Chris Smith and Russ Smith of Louisville have responded well to the rigors of tournament play with solid games in the regionals. They'll have to be on the mark if Louisville is going to keep pace with the Wildcats, which sports players that can score in a variety of ways from virtually anywhere on the court. Sophomore Doron Lamb is Kentucky's best scoring guard, hitting at 47% both inside and outside the 3-point line.
Statistically, the Wildcats enjoy even more advantages. They are the 20th-highest scoring team in the country, at 77.1 points per game, are 15th in rebounding (39.2) and 10th in field goal percentage, at .487%. The Cardinals rank 155th in scoring at 68.8 ppg, 27th in rebounds (38.2) and a troubling 255th in field goal percentage, checking in at .425%.
None of this is particularly bothersome to the confident Pitino nor his troops, who have taken the same path as last season's national title-holders, UConn, winning the Big East tournament and all four of their NCAA games, for an eight-game winning streak.
Kentucky doesn't seem the least bit concerned either. They've lost only twice all season and they've already avenged one of the losses. A December, 73-72, defeat at Indiana was reversed when the Wildcats thumped the Hoosiers, 102-90, in the South regional semi-final. Their other loss was to Vanderbilt, in the SEC championship. Though it was a disappointment for Kentucky, it didn't matter, as they were named the tournament's overall #1 seed, remain the #1 team in the polls and now have a chance to prove it in New Orleans.
Stopping Kentucky on offense is going to be difficult of the Cardinals, though penetrating their huge defense could prove to be just as daunting a task. Key to Louisville's success will be the shooting of Kuric, who can be a dagger from downtown, and the Smith boys, along with Siva's penetration. The Wildcats can spread the scoring around, but their defense is probably the most critical aspect of this contest.
We'll all know how it turns out shortly after dusk on Saturday.
Friday: Kansas vs. Ohio State Preview