The Kentucky Wildcats don’t seem to be as good as many projected before the season began.
Fine players for sure, but Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere aren’t those types of transcendent freshmen that Big Blue Nation is accustomed to trotting about each season. While there’s clearly plenty of time for them to take their games to the next level, with Murray not being all too far removed from being at the point already, Kentucky isn’t a dominant team by any stretch of the imagination.
And it’s okay, too. As some seem to think there’s some sort of annual button John Calipari pushes which reloads the roster, it’s nice for us to see instances of Kentucky’s humanity. For non-Kentucky fans especially, it’s good to not see the Wildcats start each season 20-0.
On the other hand, we have the Louisville Cardinals. A team that is fresh off an offseason that included an escort party scandal. While that has very little to do with the players on the roster now or how we should have expected them to play entering the season, few talked about them in any other terms than the team led by the guy who is in the middle of what seems like his billionth scandal (his name is Rick Pitino).
Drama aside, Louisville has been playing some pretty good basketball so far this season. Really, an 11-1 start with its only loss being to a good Michigan State team, while toppling an impressive Grand Canyon squad, is about the best it could have envisioned. That said, the Cardinals schedule hasn’t exactly been all that rough otherwise.
That’s not the players’ fault, though. They can only play the teams in front of them. All things considered, they have done so more than well, too.
The Cardinals are 11th in the nation in scoring (86.1 per), second in points allowed (59.9), second in offensive rating (125.8), first in defensive rating (81.7), and seem to be as well-rounded a team as we have seen this season. Now, again, it is doubling down on the caveat that they have played less than a handful of teams of consequence. The numbers are great, but may also be a bit misleading.
Regardless, as Louisville travels to Lexington to play Kentucky the day after many celebrate the birthday of the world’s most famous carpenter, it’s less about what Louisville can do to beat the Wildcats, but more about seeing if the Cardinals are as good as the numbers indicate. Because if they are, then the story should be about what Kentucky should do to topple Louisville. Really, it’s in-state-ception or whatever. Are we still doing Inception jokes?
That is by no means a way to downplay how good the Wildcats are. They’re still very good. The difference between this UK team and previous versions is that this one is going to lose a plethora of games this season, though.
The Wildcats are beatable. Very beatable.
It might be a different story come February or so, but to think that the only way Louisville has a chance at winning this game is to play above its average means is crazy. Since, especially, its average-means says it is one of the best teams in the nation.
What the game will likely come down to is the play of Kentucky’s Murray.
Will he go off, will he be off, or will Louisville need to do something to slow him down?
Through 11 games, Murray is averaging 17 points on 42 percent shooting, and 39 percent from distance. He has had some turnover issues this season, though. Entering the game on Saturday, he’s averaging more turnovers (3) than assists (2.9) per game.
It could also come down to which version of Tyler Ullis shows up for the Wildcats.
He was supposed to be the steady hand for the team this season, and despite showing flashes of that sort of brilliance, Ullis is shooting 34 percent from the floor and a pretty awful 26 percent from three. That said, when Ullis is good he’s near great. If the best version of him roams the hardwood on Saturday, Louisville will have its hands full.
For Louisville it pretty much goes without saying that Damion Lee has been fantastic this year. Statistically as good as almost every other player in the country. In 12 games, Lee is averaging 17.3 points per while hitting over 60 percent on his two-point attempts and 39 percent from three. His offense, if kept consistent, can result in him being a sneaky pick for end-of-year awards.
Really, the entire team is nearly as efficient. As a team, the Cardinals shoot above 50 percent from the floor and 38 percent from distance. It is part of the reason why few should, if they are, think of them as an underdog heading into Saturday’s game.
Regardless, we are about to find out how good Louisville is on Saturday.
Is its record simply a result of playing mostly cupcakes, or is it on track to have yet another better than expected season?
Facing a still growing Kentucky team this early in its development is not only a great chance to get a rivalry win, but show the nation how real of a deal the Cardinals are.
As per every single time these two teams play each other rules, though, there’s no steadfast law to apply which will help use figure out the victor before the game is played. Like all good rivalries; stats, records, and the like can be hurled out the window.