LEXINGTON — Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville clash at Rupp Arena (4 p.m. on CBS) marks the sixth meeting between U of L’s Rick Pitino and UK’s John Calipari at their current schools, and this is clearly the toughest game to predict.
In simplistic terms, it’s being billed as Louisville’s superior experience and guard play against Kentucky’s superior size and home court advantage.
The Cardinals come in 11-1 and the Wildcats are 9-3.
I believe Louisville will win this matchup in the neighborhood of 82-76, but there are variables all over the court that could dramatically change it. Let’s put it this way; it wouldn’t surprise me to see either team win by 15.
To be more specific, Louisville guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones appear to have the potential to eat up Kentucky’s Harrison twins.
I was wryly amused by the comment from Louisville-area radio host Jody Demling this week, who said: “I’m curious to see Louisville quicker guards against Kentucky’s slower, poutier guards.”
But Andrew and Aaron Harrison came to UK this year rated as two of the 10 best prep players in the country, and they have the size at 6-foot-6 to give Smith and Jones trouble.
My skepticism about this matchup for the Wildcats, however, is I’ve seen no signs that Aaron and Andrew have the quickness to match up with Smith and Jones.
And if Smith is shooting from the perimeter as he has in the past at Rupp Arena, phew, look out.
All that said, even if Smith and Jones are able to get past the Harrisons, into the paint, they still have to contend with the likes of the 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-9 Julius Randle.
Cauley-Stein and Randle could be an equalizer for Kentucky in this matchup issue.
And while Louisville big men like 6-8 sophomore Montrezl Harrell and 6-6 junior Chane Behanan lack the size Cardinals fans would like to see against the Wildcats, Harrell and Behanan are hardly chopped liver in low post play.
And swing players like 6-5 Wayne Blackshear and 6-6 Luke Hancock could play for anybody, too.
Another uncertainty about this one is the officiating. If the officials call it tight, or, more specificallly, if Harrell and Behanan get in foul trouble, it would be the Wildcats winning by 15.
If Randle and Cauley-Stein are the ones in foul trouble, Louisville could roll.
It does seem like officials are already backing off the closely-called fouls they were calling through the first couple weeks of the season.
Then there’s the matter of the two teams’ schedule so far. Kentucky’s has clearly been the tougher road of the two teams, but I’m not sure how much of an advantage that is since the Wildcats have lost to the three toughest teams they have faced in Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina.
Both Pitino and Calipari annually minimize the Kentucky-Louisville matchup, suggesting that while it’s great as a rivalry game, it has little to do with the big picture in any one college basketball season.
That may not be true this time around. With Louisville’s weak overall schedule, and Kentucky’s position in a bad Southeastern Conference, Saturday’s game could play a very significant role in seeding for the NCAA Tournament.
If Kentucky wins Saturday, the Wildcats could still get as high as a two seed in the tournament. If they lose, a four seed may be as high as they can hope for, with Florida being UK’s only shot at a marquee win the rest of the regular season.
If Louisville wins Saturday, the Cardinals still have hope for a one seed. If they lose to UK, Louisville will probably do no better than a two seed.
As an aside, it was good to hear Calipari talking nice about Pitino this past week after Kentucky’s so-so, 93-80, win over Belmont.
Calipari was asked if his presence as the coach at UK has raised the level of play at both Kentucky and Louisville.
“No, I don’t coach at that school,” Calipari said. “Rick Pitino won a national championship here. He took Providence to a Final Four. I think he’s qualified enough to do that. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. What he was doing at Louisville has inspired us and me here.
“We’d better work. We’d better get after this.”