Picking sides in the Bluegrass Battle
Kentucky and Louisville take aim at a spot in the title game
Six McDonald’s All-Americans.
That’s how many stars Kentucky coach John Calipari has on his 2012 Final Four team. And if you’re wondering, no, the rules haven’t changed – only five can be on the hardwood at the same time. So just how does he keep everyone happy on the nation’s No. 1 team?
Calipari and his Wildcats (36-2) have made it to New Orleans behind a relentless defense, holding teams to a measly 37.5 field-goal percentage – tops in the nation. And while defense can be tough to put into numbers – except for Anthony Davis’ amazing 4.6 blocks per game – it’s the Kentucky offensive stats that can really open some eyes.
Sharing is caring in Lexington. How else do you explain six players who average double figures? And Kentucky is the only team in the nation with those numbers. In fact it’s so rare, a UK team has never finished a season doing that in 109 years of basketball.
Here we are thinking Kentucky has done everything a program can possibly do. But not just yet.If it’s not Davis, then it’s Doron Lamb. If it’s not Lamb, then it’s Terrence Jones. And if it’s not Jones, then it’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Oh yeah, and point guard Marquis Teague, who averages just under five assists per game – most of them alley-oop passes – in addition to his 10.0 ppg. Don’t forget about Kyle Wiltjer off the bench, who also averages 10.0 ppg.
It’s hard enough for a coach to gameplan for one or two stars. Five or six? Forget about it.
While as good as the backcourt can be, it’s the frontcourt that has made headlines most of the season, with Davis and Jones combining to create one of the most imposing front lines the sport has seen in quite some time. If you can find a way to stop Davis from dunking – 95 this season – Jones is right there to shoulder the load.
It’s Davis, who broke Shaquille O’Neal’s SEC freshman blocks record of 115 this season, who maybe cares less about his individual stats than even his head coach. Take Kentucky’s game against South Carolina for example. With the Wildcats cruising, Davis needed two rebounds and two blocks for a triple-double. But Calipari and his staff had him on the bench.
“Do you care about that?” Calipari asked Davis after the game.
Davis shook his head no.
Calipari put him back in after wrestling with the thought in the second half. Despite the fact the Wildcats led by more than 30 points. When Davis fell awkwardly Calipari turned to his staff and mouthed “that’s why we don’t do that.”
And while Davis joked later that his dad teases him when he falls just short of such accomplishments, the team won by 34 points.
To this Kentucky team, that’s all that matters.
-- Douglas Kroll, NCAA.com
Teamwork separates the great teams from those which do the remarkable – and in doing so etch their place in history. The 2011-12 Louisville team has the opportunity to join the 1980 and ’86 Cardinals teams as national champions for that very reason: teamwork.
Offensively, you cannot focus on point guard Peyton Siva, who tied his season high with nine assists against Michigan State in the West Regional semis. UL’s big man in the middle, Gorgui Dieng, is basically a double-double. Kyle Kuric, the Cards’ leading scorer and one of six Louisville players who have taken at least 250 shots this season, doesn’t lead the team in FG attempts or FG percentage.
And we still haven’t discussed freshman Chane Behannan (second on the team with 289 rebounds) or Chris Smith (one of six Cardinals averaging at least 9.1 points per game).
Or Russ Smith.
That head coach Rick Pitino, who is appearing in his sixth Final Four, has gotten Louisville to the big dance is Russ-diculous. Considering the predicament the team was in with under four minutes remaining in the West Regional final against Florida – Siva fouled out, leaving the Cardinals’ fortunes in the hands of the full-throttle sophomore Russ Smith – the teamwork axiom played right into Louisville’s hands.
“If you ever watched him in practice, you’d never, ever consider putting him in the game,” Pittino says of Russ Smith. “He’ll turn it over 10, 15 times. Take 15 ridiculous shots. Talk to himself while play is going on, when he should be running back on defense.
“But then when the game starts, he does so many [good] things. And he’s unscoutable. … You don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Louisville (30-9) has been led in scoring by seven different players this season, including a team-high 14 times by Kuric and 11 by Russ Smith.
Pitino & Co. are throwbacks: The Cardinals play in-your-face defense, shoot from the field at a 42.5-percent clip and hit about 32 percent of their 3s.
The Cardinals are 16-0 when scoring at least 70 points. Now, keeping Kentucky to 69 or less, that’ll be the trick. Nonetheless, UK beat Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31 and is 8-0 when held under 69. In that New Year’s Eve matchup, Russ Smith scored 30 points. No other UL player reached double figures – the only game this season in which that happened.
Will history repeat itself – and Louisville fall short on the offensive side against Kentucky – or will the Cardinals teamwork approach continue to pay dividends, as it has throughout the NCAA tournament?
“Not one person in two years has come to me an said, ‘Coach, can I get the ball more? More minutes? More touches?’ All those pet phrases of the ego player of today,” Pitino said.
It’s the epitome of teamwork – and it will be the difference-maker for Louisville against Kentucky on Saturday night.
-- Duane Cross, NCAA.com