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The CoachCal.com keys to victory: Louisville

The No. 6/4 Louisville Cardinals (11-1) travel east on Interstate-64 to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 18/18 Kentucky Wildcats (9-3) in the annual Battle of the Bluegrass.

Introducing the Louisville Cardinals

The basics

What: No. 18/18 Kentucky (9-3) vs. No. 6/4 Louisville (11-1)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Louisville
Preview: Rivalry game offers golden opportunity for UK
Video: Poythress, Hawkins preview U of L
Video: Cal’s pre-Louisville presser

The Coach — Rick Pitino is in his 13th season at the helm of the Louisville basketball program and has compiled a 321-112 record with the Cardinals (.741 winning percentage). Overall, in 28 years as a head coach (29 years if one counts six games he coached as interim head coach at Hawaii), Pitino has won 675 games and lost 240 (.738 winning percentage). He is one of only two coaches — the other being John Calipari — to lead three schools to the Final Four and two schools to the title game. Pitino has been to seven Final Fours in his illustrious career (1987, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’05, ’12, ’13), winning two NCAA Championships (’96 and ’13). The New York native has won numerous conference coach of the year honors, and in 1987 Pitino bagged both the NABC National Coach of the Year as well as the John Wooden National Coach of the Year awards. Pitino was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year.

TV/Radio coverage

TV: CBS
Radio: UK IMG
Online audio: All-access
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com

The Players — Russ Smith, the Cards’ 6-foot senior guard, leads Louisville in scoring at 16.8 points per game. Smith is also the team’s leading assist man, averaging 5.0 dimes per contest. More of a volume 3-point shooter than dead-eye shooting artist, Smith is making 33.3 percent of his long-range shots on the season (24 of 72). The Cards’ most accurate shooter from beyond the arc is 6-5 junior wing Wayne Blackshear, who averages 10.3 points per game while making 45.3 percent of his shots from distance (24 of 53). Blackshear is also U of L’s top free throw shooter, having made 31 of 35 from the stripe this season (88.6 percent). Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell accounts for 12.5 points per game and is the Cards’ top board man, averaging 8.3 rebounds per contest. Harrell is a high-energy player who brings great hustle and aggressiveness to the floor for Louisville. Chris Jones, a 5-10 junior point guard, puts up 13.5 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. A solid outside shooter, Jones has connected on 17 of 42 trey attempts on the year (40.5 percent), but will also look to utilize his quickness with the ball by penetrating the lane and either drawing defenses and dishing to an open teammate, or at times hunting a 2-point look.

The team’s second leading rebounding is Bowling Green High School product Chane Behanan. The 6-6 junior forward snags 6.2 rebounds per game and nets 8.3 points per contest. Strong to the glass, Behanan is an adept scorer inside the paint, making 67.3 percent of his shots on the season (35 of 52). Mangok Mathiang, U of L’s 6-10 redshirt freshman man in the middle, records 5.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. More of a defender and rebounder than a scorer, Mathiang will vie to make life difficult for UK’s big men with his long reach and athleticism. He will hit the offensive glass with abandon, as he grabs an average of 3.3 offensive rebounds since he broke into the starting lineup six games ago.

Louisville File

Record: 11-1
Head coach: Rick Pitino (321-112 at Louisville)
Ranking: 6/4
Nickname: Cardinals
Player to watch: Russ Smith (averaging  16.8 points, 5.0 assists)
Series history: UK leads 30-15
Last meeting: Louisville won 80-77 on Dec. 29

Terry Rozier, a 6-1 freshman guard, will see time as a backup guard. Another lightening quick perimeter player, Rozier is a great decision-maker with the ball as he has 23 assists versus only three turnovers on the season (7.7 assist/turnover ratio). Rozier is still struggling to find his shot – 11 of 33 from distance on the season (33.3 percent) and 14 of 36 from insider the arc (38.9 percent) — but is capable of exploiting tight defensive play with an explosive first step. Former starter Stephan Van Treese, a 6-9 senior forward, will fill in at the center and power forward spot, and 6-6 senior wing Luke Hancock will provide perimeter depth as a 3-point shooter, although he has made only 10 of 40 from beyond the arc on the year (25.0 percent).

The Schedule — UK and U of L have one common opponent in North Carolina, with both teams falling to the Tar Heels. Louisville lost to UNC in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, 93-84, while UK came up short in Chapel Hill, N.C., 82-77. Every other game the Cards have played they have won.

Four Keys

Guard the Cardinal perimeter, limit 3-point opportunities — Jones and Blackshear, U of L’s top two 3-point shot makers, are talented enough to stretch any defense with a barrage of long-range bombs. Combined, the two sharpshooters are making 41 of 95 from distance (43.2 percent). Smith, streakier than his two teammates, is capable of getting hot from outside as he did against North Carolina when he connected on 6 of 16 from distance on his way to 37 points. Toss in backup wing Hancock, who has made 10 treys on the season, and Louisville boasts several players who can hurt the Cats from the perimeter. Because of this, Kentucky must limit the Cards’ 3-point opportunities with ball denial, hedging on screens and closing on shooters.

Handle U of L pressure, limit turnovers — Louisville will utilize high-pressure defense, often using the full court press, in the hopes of turning over UK’s young guards, potentially creating easy scoring opportunities off the break. For UK’s ball handlers, making solid decisions with the basketball is of the utmost importance this afternoon. Kentucky must use the middle of the court and the pass to break the Cardinal press, while being mindful of the quick-closing trap.

UK transition defense — Louisville will look to release its guards on the UK shot, hoping to score off the fast break. Kentucky must get back and protect the rim, or risk the Cards scoring easy transition baskets. Additionally, if the lane is clogged on the break, Louisville will look to find an open perimeter shooter, making UK matchup quickly with the abundance of Louisville trigger men.

Make free throws — Louisville comes into the contest making only 65.5 percent of its free throws on the season, but the Cards have been more accurate from the stripe on the road than at home: In U of L’s three games away from the KFC Yum! Center, the Cardinals have connected on 64 of 88 from the line, good for 72.7 percent. Kentucky, in its eight games at Rupp Arena, has made 69.4 percent of its charity stripe attempts while shooting 67.5 percent from the line overall.

Both teams shoot from the stripe often, with UK taking an average of 34.6 free throws per contest, while U of L counters with 27.1 free throw attempts per game. In today’s battle, likely a tightly contested tilt, the team enjoying the most success from the line will go a long way toward ensuring victory.

Key Matchup

Kentucky’s youthful inconsistency versus Louisville’s intensity — The battle which may well determine the winner of the war on Saturday afternoon will be UK’s ability to match the intensity and effort the Cardinals will bring to Cawood’s Court. Inconsistent focus, a symptom of UK’s youth, has hounded the Cats all season, and Louisville will be waiting to capitalize on Kentucky’s lapses in intensity. The Cards have a roster full of ferocious competitors who will not let up in either focus or effort, regardless of the game situation. If it is to come out victorious, Kentucky must bring to the floor the most complete effort it has displayed all season.

Trends

  • James Young — Young has made 13 of 16 free throws over the last three games (81.3 percent) after making 22 of 35 from the line in the first eight games (62.9 percent). Shooting from long range over the last five games, Young has connected on 13 of 30 (43.3 percent).
  • Aaron Harrison — He had a season-high seven assists versus Belmont. He’s averaging 18.0 points and 3.3 assists over his last six games.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein — WCS had a season-high 16 points against Belmont. Over the last five games, Cauley-Stein has made 24 of 31 shots from the floor (77.4 percent).
  • Andrew Harrison — Over the last five games, Harrison has 16 assists and 13 turnovers, but he is averaging 12.3 points in the last three games.
  • Julius Randle — The big fella had a season-low one turnover against Belmont. Over the last three games, Randle has connected on 18 of 30 field goals (60.0 percent) after being true on 50 of 95 shots in the first nine games (52.6 percent).
  • Dominique Hawkins — Hawkins played a career-high 22 minutes versus Belmont, grabbing a career-high four rebounds and dishing a career-high three assists.

Team stats

UK Louisville
Scoring offense 81.5 86.2
Scoring defense 66.3 60.2
FG percentage 48.2 47.6
FG percentage defense 38.1 39.3
3-point percentage 31.7 35.9
3-point percentage defense 31.8 32.5
FT percentage 67.5 65.5
Rebound margin +12.8 +7.3
Steals per game 4.1 9.8
Blocks per game 7.4 4.9
Assists per game 12.7 15.4
Turnover margin -2.5 +9.4
kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank 6 1
Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank 48 7

Individual leaders

UK Louisville
Points per game Julius Randle (18.2) Russ Smith (16.6)
Rebounds per game Julius Randle (11.3) Montrezl Harrell (8.3)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (64.4) Chane Behanan (67.3)
3-point percentage James Young (33.3) Wayne Blackshear (45.3)
Free-throw percentage Aaron Harrison (77.0) Wayne Blackshear (88.6)
Assists per game Andrew Harrison (3.3) Russ Smith (5.0)
Blocks per game Willie Cauley-Stein (4.2) Mangok Mathiang (1.3)
Steals per game Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison (1.1) JJ Mann (2.1)

The Wrap-up

Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m. with television coverage provided by CBS. As always, stay tuned to CoachCal.com for complete in-, pre-, and postgame coverage as the Cats and Cards battle for bragging rights in the Bluegrass.