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At the beginning of the season, this could've been a Final 4 or even championship game matchup. Instead, Louisville and Kentucky get to face off in the Sweet 16. It's doubtful anyone is complaining about it (outside of Wichita State). Despite losing in their game earlier this year, the Cardinals are -4.5 point favorites.
In that first game, it was played at Rupp Arena, so take it with a grain of salt compared to this one. Chane Behanan also played for Louisville, but he was largely ineffective. Surprisingly, Louisville didn't force many turnovers in that game and Montrezl Harrell only had six points and four boards, while Russ Smith battled foul trouble. Kentucky dominated the glass, got equal production from its starters, and only went 3-of-14 from long distance. Considering the Wildcats are playing much better than they were earlier in the season, shouldn't the line be a bit closer? Maybe so.
Since entering postseason play, Kentucky has only one loss and it was by one point against the No. 1 overall seed Florida. They are coming off a win against Wichita State that may have been their most complete game played all season. They won the rebound battle, didn't turn it over a huge amount, made their free throws and hit three-pointers. When the Wildcats are hitting their shots, they're a tough team to beat them.
The Cardinals had trouble against Manhattan in their first game, but opened things up on Saint Louis, forcing 18 turnovers and getting double-digit points from four starters. That included 21 from Luke Hancock, who's starting to find his shot again.
There's going to be two factors in this game, rebounding and turnovers. Kentucky is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation and that's one of the reasons they beat the Shockers as Julius Randle pulled down five offensive boards. Louisville's only real consistent rebounder is Harrell and that could definitely be a problem in this matchup if the Wildcats attack the offensive glass.
Since they probably won't win that facet, the Cardinals have to force turnovers, which they are one of the best at. In that first game in Kentucky they only forced 11, which isn't going to cut it. When forcing 17 or more turnovers this year, the Cardinals are 19-0, but for the Wildcats when committing 11 or fewer, they are 16-2.
Just by looking at those numbers, it's pretty simple to see what each team needs to do.
As for the matchups, Harrell is going to have his hands full, but needs to be a factor. He's the main one dealing with guys like Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein every possession of the game. Russ Smith and Hancock need to be on their games as well, drawing fouls and hitting shots. Kentucky's offense is a bit better than what they saw last round from Saint Louis. Stephan Van Treese also has an important role on the defensive glass for Louisville.
The Wildcats main focus will be on not turning the ball over against a press-heavy defense and that starts with the Harrison twins. Andrew turned it over six times last game which can't happen again, although he made up for it with 20 points, well above his season average. If Aaron Harrison and James Young are hitting shots again, that's a huge advantage. Then Louisville still has to deal with Randle down low, although Harrell could give him fits due to his length.
After looking at the numbers, it's hard not to see why the spread isn't a little closer. This game is going to come down to the wire. Who would you trust, the experienced Cardinals or the freshman-heavy Wildcats?
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