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January 20, 2009

SCS.comI am going to be completely honest with you, heading into the season and even more so a few weeks into the season, I was under the impression that both Kentucky and Louisville were overrated and would be wildly inconsistent this season. Now I am going to eat a personal serving of crow and jump on the bandwagon for both of these teams. Despite still having question marks, more than likely both will be factors in March. They have played once and the game was phenomenal, now let’s take a look at why there could be a rematch in the “Battle for the Bluegrass.”

Kentucky, perhaps the most storied program in college basketball history started the year off with a tough loss to Virginia Military Institute, not a good loss, but one we will come back to later. Louisville on the other hand fell to instate rival Western Kentucky, annually one of the top mid-majors, early in the season. The Cardinals also lost to UNLV and Minnesota who are a combined 29-5, however Rick Pitino’s squad still had a significant advantage in the talent department for those duels. But the chemistry was just not there, poor decision making seemed to outweigh good choices, the posts were not going strong to goal, the whole team seemed hesitant.

Yet something seemed to click after the UNLV loss, and it started with instate rival Kentucky, well at least the final 3 seconds of that game. Edgar Sosa came up big, and perhaps saved Pitino’s season with a long three that had the look of a dagger going right through Wildcat nation’s heart. From the moment that shot fell, Louisville rattled off four straight conference wins in the absurdly tough Big East, two against top 25 teams and one against previously top-ranked Pittsburgh.

Now if Louisville had one moment that can be pinpointed as a turning point in their season, then Kentucky needs one as well. But that’s a negative, if anything; it’s simply the emergence of Jodie Meeks. Coming into the season, he has averaged a shade less than nine points per game for his career, this season he has gone over 30 points five times and even dropped 54 on preseason conference favorite Tennessee on the road. He truly has that Stephen Curry-like ability to “go-off” from time to time and you don’t want to face him on that day. The difference between the Meeks and Curry is the talent surrounding them, which means Meeks’ Wildcats are dangerous.

As good as Meeks has been, and he is the top scoring threat for the Wildcats, but is not even the best player on his own team. Patrick Patterson is a full-blown future lottery pick in the NBA. Patterson brings a shade over 18 points and 9 boards to the table, while providing the ‘Cats with very good defense in the post. Patterson struggles this season have come when matched up against an opponent with a size advantage on him and possesses offensive ability, as well as against teams that like to get up and down the court without any regard to a half court set. This could very well be Kentucky’s greatest flaw.

Not that getting up and down the court is Kentucky’s flaw; they are as extremely athletic. However, Kentucky is a team that is best suited to play in the half court. Setting screens to free Meeks and getting the ball to Patterson in the post as well as on the wing is simply how they function. Earlier I said we would get back to the VMI game, and this game is what could end Kentucky’s season. VMI is a team that plays 120 miles per hour for 40 minutes. Because of the poor play at the point, Kentucky was unable to control the tempo even a little bit, thus getting into a shootout.

DeAndre Liggins and Michael Porter have handled the point guard duties for Billy Gillespie’s squad and it has been spotty at best. If Kentucky could have controlled the tempo and operated from its half-court set, more than likely VMI would not have been able to hang with the national power. The point guard duo has combined for 110 assists and 90 turnovers, not exactly a recipe for success. Patterson and Meeks are about as good of a one-two punch that you will find in the college ranks, but if Kentucky allows its opponents dictate the style of play because their point guards can not control the tempo, they could also be knocked out in the first round.

Louisville has a one-two punch, actually a trio, that can play with anyone in Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Williams. Clark is the team’s leading scorer and can take bigger players off the dribble, while taking advantage of his height against smaller players in the post. The senior Williams plays the post better than pretty much any other 6’6 player and is without a doubt the Cardinals’ leader and most consistent player. The last member of the threesome is perhaps the most important. Samuels is a super freshman with skills well beyond his years. Early in the season, he was a touch timid and was playing like, well, a freshman. After the New Year, he started making strong moves and taking the ball to the hoops with a purpose. Since then, he has outplayed several of the Big East’s top pivots.

Samardo Samuels is only going to get better, there is very little to dispute this fact. Louisville’s biggest factor for the remainder of the season is very similar to Kentucky, the point guard spot. Edgar Sosa has been wildly inconsistent since the day he stepped on campus. If Louisville is going to make a run at the Final Four, Sosa needs to be the player that steps up and guides his teammates. He turns the ball over about as much as he nets an assist and also struggles mightily from long distance. Even if Sosa struggles, the Cardinals will be in every game thanks to their defense.

One thing that is a guarantee out of a Rick Pitino team is great athleticism and hellacious defense. In my opinion, Louisville plays better team defense than any team in the country. It is ugly, it is unorthodox, but it is effective. They have held their opponents to under 60 points seven times this season and under 70 an astonishing twelve times. More important than the amount of points they allow is the frenzied state they force their opponent into, which was evident by how worn Pittsburgh appeared down the stretch in their match-up just last week.

If the “Battle for the Bluegrass” for this season is to have a sequel it would have to be in March, something that has not happened in 25 years. Typically the committee tries to avoid rematches in the tournament until the later rounds, but both of these teams have the ability to win several tournament games. Also something to keep in mind is the fact that the Big East is going to have a slew of teams represented in the NCAA Tournament, thus the committee could be forced to place Louisville wherever they fit in order to avoid Big East teams playing one another prior to the Final Four. Obviously there is a 25% of Louisville being in Kentucky’s region, something that would leave the state in frenzy, and the nation in for quite a treat.

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