5 reasons why the Louisville Cardinals will prevail
1. Montrezl Harrell. In the Wildcats’ 73-66 victory on December 28th, Chane Behanan had yet to be dismissed from the team. Behanan played 20 minutes without making a shot or attempting a free throw. The seven rebounds he snared were his lone contribution to the Cardinals’ effort. Harrell, meanwhile, played 21 minutes and made the only two shots he took, finishing with a mere 6 points thanks to two made free throws.
Before Behanan was dismissed from the team on December 30th, Harrell averaged 24.4 minutes and 12 points per game. After Behanan’s departure, Harrell’s minutes increased to 31.9 per game, and his scoring improved to 15.9 points per game. Harrell also increased his productivity on the glass and has posted 11 double-doubles since Behanan left the team.
2. Luke Hancock. It has been well-established that the real Luke Hancock stands up come tourney time. However, Hancock struggled throughout the beginning of the season, averaging only 8 points over his first 12 games. His 12th game of the season was the matchup against Kentucky, where Hancock was 3-11 from the field, including 2-8 from beyond the arc. Hancock finished with 8 points in the loss to the Wildcats but scored in double-digits in 20 out of the next 23 games.
Like Harrell, Hancock has helped fill the void left by Behanan’s departure. Hancock has averaged 18.5 points in his two tournament games this year, and if he is knocking down shots from 3-point range, it will help stretch out the Wildcats’ defense. Last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player will make his presence felt on Friday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
3. Russ Smith. Smith made only 7 out of 20 shots in December’s loss to the Wildcats, which was more than a third of the Cardinals’ field goal attempts. When Russdiculous attempts more than fifteen shots, it can, and often does, spell trouble for Louisville. In losses to North Carolina, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Memphis (twice), Smith has shot the ball 24, 20, 15, 15 and 16 times respectively. In wins against SMU, Cincinnati and UConn (thrice), Russ had field goal attempt totals of 15, 10, 13, 2 and 18. Undoubtedly, Coach Pitino will aggressively stress to Smith the importance of shot selection against the Wildcats, especially with their ability to exploit their size and length in the rebounding department.
4. Rick Pitino. 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. The Paisan of Preparation has five days to prepare for Kentucky and devise a plan to thwart the dominance of Julius Randle in the interior and rattle the Harrison twins.
5. The press. Louisville is quicker than Kentucky at almost every position on the court. Louisville averages 10 steals a game and forced its two NCAA opponents last weekend to turn the basketball over 33 times. Opponents have turned the ball over against Louisville on at least 20 percent of their possessions in every game since Valentine’s Day, and the Cardinals have lost just one game since then.
Kentucky’s young players, especially the Harrison twins, do not have experience handling the stifling pressure defense employed by Pitino’s Cardinals. The Wildcats have improved lately but have not been entirely efficient with their ball movement over the course of the season (0.93 assist-to-turnover ratio). Louisville hopes to disrupt the Wildcats’ rhythm and force them into turnovers by exploiting their inexperience.
However, the X-factor that could disrupt the Cardinals’ swarming defense wears black-and-white, not blue-and-white. If the zebras decide to call the game tight, multiple Cardinals could end up in early foul trouble and be forced to watch long stretches of the game from the bench. No one wants to see Harrell or Smith have to sit five minutes into the game after picking up two early fouls. A tightly called game would also benefit Kentucky’s drive-drive-drive offense, which averages 29 free throw attempts per game.
“I’ve said it many times: I’ve been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice. Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play.” – Rick Pitino
Prediction: Louisville 73 – Kentucky 66.