March 28th is a harrowing date for Big Blue Nation.
It was on that day 12 years ago that Christian Laettner hit his last-second, back-to-the-basket, turn-around, game-winning jump shot in Duke’s dramatic 104–103 victory over Kentucky in the East regional final of the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
The Louisville Cardinals hope to make Kentucky fans remember March 28, 2014 in the same vein as March 28, 1992.
The Wildcats seemingly head into Friday’s matchup against the Cardinals with the momentum after playing two of the best games of their season in the past two weeks. Kentucky lost by a point to Florida on March 16th in the SEC tournament championship game and defeated Wichita State last Sunday by two. The Wildcats’ other impressive game of their up-and-down season? A 73-66 win against the Cardinals on December 28th.
The Cardinals ought to have the edge in momentum after not having lost a game since March 1st, including plowing through the AAC tournament and winning their first two NCAA tournament games. However, Louisville struggled against Manhattan and earned an ugly win against St. Louis in the first two rounds.
Looking at each team’s second round game from a different perspective, it’s valid to argue that Kentucky played its best game of the season in order to slip by Wichita State, while Louisville played poorly and still beat Saint Louis by 15.
Russ Smith admitted after the two teams played in December that Kentucky is a bad matchup for the Cardinals. Louisville will have to overcome Kentucky’s significant size advantage, which they were unable to do in the December 28th matchup.
Kentucky outrebounded the Cardinals 44-36, including 17-12 offensively. Louisville was unable to effectively drive inside as the Wildcats constantly contested shots and passes. Furthermore, Kentucky dominated the paint, outscoring Louisville 42-24 and holding the Cards to 40 percent shooting. All of this was accomplished with Julius Randle only playing the first half.
Randle had 17 first-half points to put Kentucky up 41-36 at halftime lead. At the beginning of the second half the 6-foot-9 forward went to the locker room with leg cramps. Randle attempted to return but wound up on the bench for the rest of the game while struggling with more cramps.
The key matchup in this game will be in the paint. Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the Cardinals’ backcourt need to contain Kentucky freshman Julius Randle without getting in foul trouble, which won’t be easy considering Randle averages more than seven free throw attempts per game. If Harrell & Co. can battle Randle to a draw that should put the focus of the game on the guards.
Louisville’s Russ Smith and Chris Jones are quicker and better shooters, but Kentucky’s Harrison twins have the size to create mismatches when they drive to the basket. Additionally, Smith is coming off one of his worst games of the season against St. Louis, while the Harrison twins put forth arguably their best collaborative effort of the year against Wichita State.
The Harrisons combined for 39 points, shooting 12-for-22 from the field overall and 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Despite nine combined turnovers, it was their best combined performance of the year considering the opponent and the national spotlight.
Just as they did against Wichita State, the Harrisons rose to the occasion against Louisville in their December matchup, combining for 28 points in helping to offset the loss of Randle.
However, the X factor for Friday’s titanic could boil down to the the play of Louisville senior Luke Hancock versus that of Kentucky freshman James Young. Both possess nearly identical field goal and 3-point shooting percentages and can knock down big shots when their teams need them most. But as he has proven with his 21 points against Saint Louis, his clutch shooting in the final minutes to propel Louisville past Manhattan, and last but not least, his performance in last year’s Final Four, Hancock shines bright in the biggest games.
I would be doing this column a disservice if I did not address the battle between the coaches: Pitino versus Calipari. Each coach can put forth valid arguments for having the advantage entering Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night.
Rick Pitino is both unbeaten and dominant in 11 career Sweet 16 appearances, winning each regional semifinal by an average 19.8 points. Other than last year’s 77-69 win over Oregon, Pitino has never won a Sweet 16 game by less than double digits.
Kentucky beat Louisville in the Final Four two years ago, and at Kentucky, John Calipari is 5-1 against Pitino at Louisville. The only loss came last season at Louisville’s KFC Yum Center when Pitino had his best U of L team, Calipari had his worst UK team, and Louisville still had to battle out an 80-77 win.
Friday night it’s Pitino versus Calipari.
It’s Louisville’s team chemistry, tenacity and high-pressure defense against Kentucky’s youth, size and talent.
It’s red versus blue.
It’s the Battle of the Bluegrass, and both teams will forever remember the 28th of March.