In a day featuring eleven games with top 25 teams, one stands above the rest. When Rick Pitino's Louisville (10-3) Cardinals travel to Rupp Arena to take on #3 Kentucky (14-0), it will be the first meeting between the two teams in the Calipari era. Not coincidentally, the reason this matchup is so tantalizing is because of the rivalry between the much-maligned coaches. When Calipari was looking for work in 1988, it was Pitino who recommended the Pittsburgh assistant for the head coaching position at his alma mater, Massachusetts, even offering to pay part of Cal's salary. Calipari guided the Minutemen to a Final Four in 1996, before being ousted by Pitino's Kentucky team. The rivalry then took a turn, as both coaches found themselves in Conference USA after brief stints in the NBA failed. The relationship has continued to sour, and now Pitino's recommendation of Calipari for the head job at UMass is one of the most ironic stories in college hoops. 20 years later, that same man is at the helm of Rick's old team, the Big Blue, while Pitino leads the way at Louisville. One of college basketball's most storied rivalries begins a new chapter Saturday afternoon. Throw records out the window. The storyline surrounding this one is not ordinary, and the game itself promises to be anything but.
Freshman point guard John Wall is the catalyst of Coach Cal's dribble drive motion offense this season. Although he can be erratic at times (his 4 turnovers are among the most in the nation) there is no doubt about his impact. Wall makes Kentucky better. Plain and simple. If Kentucky's 14-0 record doesn't speak for itself, Wall's teammates have nothing but positive words for him. His court vision is remarkable, and his jump shot is better than advertised. It can be clear at times that he's a freshman, but those moments are becoming fewer and farther between as the season progresses. His backcourt partner is fellow frosh Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is a sharp ball handler, but his feel for the game can not match that of his playing partner. However, Bledsoe is a dynamic shooter. He has a knack for hitting big shots. Darius Miller is one player who often gets forgotten in the buzz surrounding the quartet of Wall, Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, but he carries immense value. His stat line is unassuming, but Miller goes about his business, rarely having a bad game from the field and always playing within the offense. Coming off the bench is sharpshooting, Juco transfer Darnell Dodson. Dodson is a spot up shooter, with around 65% of his shots coming from long range. He doesn't get many minutes because he's not as apt of a distributor of the basketball as Wall, Bledsoe and Miller, but when he does find the court, he makes the most of it offensively, knocking in about 9 points in 17 minutes of action. Thrown back into the fray four games ago was DeAndre Liggins, who is looking to expand upon his role of last season. He had to take on the role of point guard at times a year ago. With Wall, Liggins can focus on his scoring. It will be interesting to see how he plays in this one; his toughest game came against Long Beach State.
Patrick Patterson is the veteran of the bunch. Only a junior, Patterson came back to school when he could have opted to go pro. Patterson still has the conventional low post game he's been known for in his first two years, but he has added an element this year. His shooting range now extends beyond the three point arc, an added dimension that makes him a better pro prospect, but more immediately, a pain to guard. DeMarcus Cousins is lauded for his points per minute statistics. He plays a shade under 19 minutes per game, but knocks in over 15 points. What many don't realize is that Cousins takes more shots per minute than anyone else in the country. Another distinction Cousins holds-most fouls per minute. It's clear that when he wants to, DeMarcus can be a dominating post presence. At others, he's a selfish, stubborn, player without discipline. His play may decide the outcome of the game. Daniel Orton comes off the bench, and while he isn't the offensive force Cousins is, that's not his job. Orton is tough and blocks shots. Ramon Harris is the defensive specialist. He's not a great scorer, but he's a hard-nosed player who gives his all. He came under fire last year for his lack of scoring, but Harris is involved this season under Calipari. Perry Stevenson has gone from starter to seldom used reserve. His story is the tragedy of the Calipari era. Good players who did their job are kicked to the curb. Stevenson is a good shot blocker and rebounder, but he won't see much playing time.
The Louisville attack is led by the experienced backcourt. Edgar Sosa, the hero of the rivalry last year, is playing the best basketball of his college career. Sosa has been criticized by Pitino for lack of effort and defensive intensity, but this season he is second on the team in scoring and leading them in assists. Juniors Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles join Sosa. Both are good rebounders and good defenders who are shooting poorly this season. Knowles has a great assist to turnover ratio, and is known for his quickness. He'll be guarding Wall in what promises to be an incredibly interesting matchup. Another senior, Reginald Delk, leads the second unit (he starts, but Knowles sees more time). Delk's biggest asset is his shooting. He's been lights out from beyond the arc this year. After all that experience, two young guys add to a very deep rotation. The A-lister of Pitino's recruiting class this season is Peyton Siva. Siva isn't close to cracking the starting lineup as a first year, much different from the situation in Lexington. But he still gets good minutes, and is the first 'Ville guard mentioned who talks the majority of his shots inside the arc. Siva is more comfortable slashing to the basket, which is why he has taken more free throws than Knowles or Delk and nearly as many as Sosa and Smith despite playing just over half the minutes they get. Sophomore Kyle Kuric is the sixth guard in the lineup, but still sees over 14 minutes a game. Kuric has not shot well from deep by any means this season, but is over 60% from inside the arc, which keeps his shooting percentage at a respectable 42%. Mike Marra is able to find time as the seventh guard, but he may not see many minutes in a game of magnitude, like this one.
Samardo Samuels has made tremendous strides from his flawed freshman season. He has a second home at the free throw line, which spells trouble for the foul-prone Cousins. Samuels is playing with force and confidence, something he showed in flashes a year ago but never with any consistency. The stats aren't that much better, but he's a completely different player. Jared Swopshire, another sophomore, joins him in the frontcourt. Swopshire is a good rebounder and good low post scorer, but he provides a dynamic that Samuels can not, the three pointer. Although never with much frequency, Swopshire can step up and knock down the three ball if called upon. The frontcourt isn't as deep as the backcourt, but Terrence Jennings, the third sophomore of the bunch, played significant minutes last year and is seeing an increase in minutes. Although Swopshire got the starting spot alongside Samuels that many that Jennings would take, Jennings has been active, scoring over 6 points a game and hauling in about 4 rebounds. He shoots an extremely impressive 62% from the field. The fourth player in the rotation is the young one of the bunch. Rakeem Buckles is the lone freshman. One of the great names in college hoops, Buckles is a good scorer and leads the team in rebounds per minutes. With so much youth in the frontcourt, the Cardinals have a bright future in that area.
Although no one seems to be able to stop the 'Cats, not to mention the home court advantage, I have a sneaking suspicion that Louisville wins this one. They have the horses to run with UK, and while no one in Lexington will be overlooking their opponent, they are certainly the favorites. Look for Louisville to walk out of Rupp with a win, 76-72.