Final Four Predictions: Louisville Cardinals vs Kentucky Wildcats
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
by Mike Stewart
One of college basketball’s fiercest rivalries figures to rise to an unprecedented level of intensity when the Louisville Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats meet in New Orleans for a berth in the national championship game. Kentucky’s appearance in the Final Four is no surprise.
The Wildcats lost just one game in the regular season and have faced little opposition in rolling to 36 victories in 38 games. The Cardinals, meanwhile, saved their best work for late in the season.
Louisville, which won the Big East tournament championship, rides an eight-game winning streak into New Orleans. Kentucky beat the Cardinals 69-62 on New Year’s Eve in Lexington and owns a 29-14 lead in the series.
Louisville Cardinals (30-9): The Cardinals lost four of their final six games entering the Big East tournament and battled injuries all season long. So how did Louisville win the conference title and then slay top-seed Michigan State and Florida on its way to New Orleans? Start with defense. The Cardinals have allowed just 56.3 points during their winning streak, and smothered Florida with a 23-8 surge in the final 10 minutes of the West Regional final on Saturday. The Cardinals rank third nationally in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (38.0 percent) and seventh in steals (8.9). But can Louisville play well enough on offense to stay close to Kentucky? The Cardinals shoot just 42.5 percent from the field (220th in the nation). Sophomore Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 19 points in the regional final, and Louisville got 17 points from freshman Chane Behanan, the West Regional’s most outstanding player.
Kentucky Wildcats (36-2): In their first four NCAA games, the Wildcats showed both the ability to completely take control with dominant stretches against Western Kentucky, Iowa State and Baylor, and the toughness to hold a stubborn Indiana just out of striking distance. The Wildcats’ balanced attack has shined in the tournament. Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist earned most outstanding player honors of the South Regional after scoring 43 points in his past two games. Kentucky shot 80.2 percent from the free-throw line in its past two games (65-for-81), and continues to make life tough on opposing offenses with its strong interior defense (six blocks by freshman Anthony Davis against Baylor). Kentucky leads the nation in blocked shots (8.6) and field-goal percentage defense (37.5 percent).
1. The Cardinals and Wildcats did not play for 24 years, until the 1983 Mideast Regional final, won by Louisville 80-68 in overtime. That game led to the renewal of a series that dates back to 1913.
2. The Wildcats are two wins away from their first national title since 1998. Their coach in that championship season? Current Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
3. Louisville scored 15 points off turnovers against Florida, illustrating the Cardinals’ pressure-driven defense that’s helped fueled their late-season surge.
NCAA BASKETBALL PREDICTION: Kentucky 73, Louisville 61.