By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari has basically owned Louisville since becoming Kentucky’s coach. Kentucky has won 10 of the last 12 games with Louisville and Calipari’s losses came in 2012 and 2016 at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville.
However, going into Saturday afternoon’s rivalry game in Rupp Arena, Louisville is the team trending higher. Louisville is 11-1 with the only loss coming in a 57-50 upset by Texas Tech. The Cardinals average 76.7 points per game and give up 58.4 while holding opponents to 35 percent shooting from the field.
More troubling for Kentucky might be that the Cardinals are out rebounding opponents by 10 per game.
Kentucky is averaging 74.5 points per game and giving up 61.2. The Cats are shooting 46.4 percent from the field but only 27.8 percent from 3-point range. Kentucky is giving up 61.2 points per game and holding opponents to 38 percent shooting, including 31 percent from 3-point range. Kentucky has outrebounded opponents by eight per game.
Overall, Louisville has played better more consistently on both offense and defense this season than Kentucky. Many believe the Cardinals are the best team in the ACC — ahead of Duke and defending NCAA champion Virginia.
Kentucky comes into the game off consecutive losses, a rarity in the Calipari era. However, after the most recent loss sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans — UK’s best player this season — said there was “nothing too big” wrong with the Cats.
“I would just say just coming together more, having each other’s back more, helping each other out. But other than that I think we’re getting it, everyone’s getting their role coming into it, but obviously also we just got to start sharing the ball but that comes with getting closer on and off the court,” Hagans said. “But it’s just small things right now.”
Hagans is averaging 13.9 points, 7.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. The only negative — 3.3 turnovers per game. Hagans could be a huge disruptor in this game because Louisville’s biggest weakness has been taking care of the ball the last few seasons. Louisville has not been nearly as turnover prone this year but Hagans can put a different type pressure on opposing guards and both Immanuel Quickly and Tyrese Maxey have the speed to create turnovers.
Kentucky’s matchup issue comes against Louisville’s Jordan Nwora? Can Kahlil Whitney or Keion Brooks Jr. guard him because I don’t think Nick Richards and Nate Sestina can effectively do that against Nwora, a 41 percent shooter from 3-point range.
Sestina could be the X-factor for UK. He hit five 3-pointers in the loss to Ohio State and could force Louisville bigs Malik Williams and Steven Enoch out of the post to create driving lanes for Hagans, Maxey and Quickley.
Sestina said the Ohio State loss showed where Kentucky is going into this game.
“I think from the beginning of the year until now we have really improved our toughness. You saw guys getting chippy (against Ohio State), guys were bumping guys around, diving on the floor, guys stepping up, blocking shots,” Sestina said.
“I think we were starting to click and we’re like two or three possessions away from really getting this thing going and it really starts with like Ashton said, it starts with on and off the court relationships and we’re starting to do that.
“Guys are hanging out with guys outside of basketball and that trust carries on to the court so that every time we step on we know that guys are going to be there for each other.”