BY KEVIN W. FARIS
The greatest rivalry in college basketball, UK v. UL, (that’s right, I said it, suck it UNC/Duke people), tips off at noon on New Year’s Eve, and what during the preseason looked to be a mismatch will probably see UL as the Vegas favorite by tip off (UPDATE: UL opens as a 2 point favorite). What happened? Well, the first step was the NCAA holding Enes Kanter hostage and the second step was Rick Pitino molding the UL team into a team which is greater than the sum of their parts. Neither of these developments pleases me, as a UK fan, but you have to tip your hat to the sleaze ball for showing he can still coach. So, as the Commonwealth prepares to start their New Year’s early, here are five reasons why UK will be victorious, and for the UL people out there, five reasons UL will be the winner. To be honest, I will root for and believe that UK will win, but a UL win would not shock me. All stats used here are courtesy of Kenpom.com, the most awesome college basketball statistical website in the known universe. Seriously, if you have never checked it out, go there now. By the way, he predicts a 60% chance that UL wins. Let’s hope he’s the opposite of Sex Panther cologne and that 60% of the time he’s wrong every time.
Five Reasons UK Will Beat UL:
1. Better talent- UK has two players, Terrance Jones and Brandon Knight, who are projected to go in the top half of the 2010 NBA draft. Position by position there is only one, Josh Harrellson v. Terrance Jennings, where UL clearly has the better player. If you take out Harrellson and add Doron Lamb, UK’s top 5 is better than UL’s top 5.
2. Defense- UL made 17-23 of their three point shots in their last game against Morgan State. Oddly, this will be the second opponent that made 17 threes in the game prior to playing UK. Washington was 17-29 against Virginia in Maui before playing UK, where they then went 3-13. UK has actually played two teams ranked in the Top 10 nationally in three point percentage, Portland and UW. Portland shot 4-20 from three and UW, as mentioned earlier, went 3-13. UL, despite their recent barrage, is ranked 71st in three point percentage.
3. Schedule- UK has played Washington, Michigan State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina, all teams that were at one point ranked in the season, and none these games at home. UL’s only ranked opponents have been Butler and UNLV, who UL beat in the YUM! Center. (True story, if you forget to put the ! after YUM!, Colonel Sanders will send you an angry email.) UK’s non-conference schedule is ranked 34th and UL’s is 207th. UK has played better teams and should be better prepared for the matchup.
4. Turnovers- UL’s offense, when not relying on threes, relies on forcing turnovers and turning them into easy baskets. Unlike most recent UK teams, this one does not turn the ball over, averaging only 15.7 turnovers per game, which ranks 6th nationally. If UK plays good defense on the three and does not give UL easy fast break points, they should be in good shape.
5. Three point shooting- While a lot of focus is being given to UL’s three point shooting, UK has made their threes at a much higher percentage, 13th nationally v. 71st. True, UL has taken 69 more shots than UK, but has only made 17 more. Knight and Lamb are more consistent than any shooters UK had last year, and Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins can knock it down as well. Harrellson can even make a three, although he rarely shoots. The difference between the two teams at this point, is that UK does not rely on the three point shot as much as UL does. If both teams go cold, UK will have the advantage.
Five Reasons UL Will Beat UK:
1. Depth- Even with injuries to Jared Swopshire (still in shock over his DeMarcus Cousins beatdown from last year) and Elisha Justice, UL can go 10 deep without a problem. The same cannot be said for UK. In UK’s losses this year, to UCONN and UNC, foul trouble was a major issue. UK, realistically, goes 6-7 deep depending on how Eloy Vargas is playing. If Jones, Knight, or any of the starters get in foul trouble, UK will have a difficult time winning.
2. Three point shooting- I know I just said that UL is only ranked 71st percentage wise in three point shooting, but they have shown the ability to get hot from the outside. If UK does not clamp down on the perimeter defense, UL can make the open shot. Also, UL will attempt these shots no matter what. In the UK victory over UW in Maui, the team I believe most resembles UL, UW only took 13 threes. UL will take at least that many by halftime. In UL’s loss to Drexel, the Dragons pressured UL at the three point line and dared them to drive. They couldn’t’t. UK will need to do that and more to win.
3. YUM! Center- UL’s new arena is supposed to be one of the best in the country. My dad went to the UL/UNLV game and seconded that claim. This will be the first UK/UL game in the new arena and you can bet the crowd will be fired up. This will be the most hostile environment where UK has played, with UNC and UW in Maui next on the list.
4. Rebounding- This will be strength against strength as UL is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country (ranking 57th) while UK is one of the best defensive rebounding teams (ranking 18th). UL was destroyed on the boards in their one loss to Drexel, but has dominated before and after that game. The insertion of Gorgui Dieng into the lineup has helped. Jones and Harrellson will need to really step up to keep UL off the boards.
5. Depth- I know I said this one already, but I feel it needs to be repeated because it is without a doubt the greatest advantage UL has over UK. UL plays a faster tempo than UK and will have no problems trying to turn the game into a street brawl like they did last year. If one of UK’s top 6 has to sit for any reason, it is to the advantage of UL. They know this and I am sure a key part of their game plan is built around this idea. The best description of the UL team and their depth was stated by The Turkey Hunter from Kentucky Sports Radio “UL’s roster is like the buffet at Golden Corral. Nothing is particularly good but they have a lot of it”