New Orleans, LA – Lexington, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - A matchup of the last two national champions takes place on Saturday afternoon, as the sixth-ranked Louisville Cardinals pay a visit to the 18th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
Louisville has been nearly perfect this season, claiming victory in 11 of its first 12 games, and the team is currently in the midst of a six-game win streak. The Cardinals, who blasted FIU in their last outing (85-56), are playing their final non-league game today, as they will embark on their first season as a member of the American Athletic Conference with a New Year's Eve clash at UCF.
Kentucky began the season as the No. 1 team in the land, but has already lost three times, the most recent of which occurring in an 82-77 decision at North Carolina on Dec. 14. The Wildcats' other two setbacks have come against top- tier programs in Michigan State and Baylor, and they are coming off a 93-80 win over Belmont last Saturday. UK is also playing its final non-conference game as it is set to begin SEC action at home versus Mississippi State on Jan. 8.
Kentucky has doubled up Louisville in the all-time series, 30-15, but the Cardinals won last year's tilt at home, 80-77.
Louisville is simultaneously one of the nation's top offensive and defensive teams, averaging 86.2 ppg while permitting just 60.2 ppg -- both figures ranking it in the top-12. The Cardinals are shooting 47.6 percent from the field, which includes a 35.9 percent showing from 3-point range, while their opponents are limited to 39.3 percent field goal efficiency, and they also own significant margins in both rebounding (+7.3) and turnovers (+9.4). Russ Smith paces four double-digit scorers with his 16.8 ppg, and he hands out 5.0 apg as well. Montrezl Harrell (12.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Chris Jones (13.5 ppg, 23 steals) and Wayne Blackshear (10.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg) have all been solid performers for coach Rick Pitino's club, which routed FIU last weekend thanks to a .481 shooting percentage, which included 13 treys. The Cards took full advantage of 20 turnovers, while their reserves outscored FIU's, 30-5. Smith led the way with 18 points, Blackshear had 13 and Harrell 10.
Kentucky is once again reliant on a slew of youngsters, and Julius Randle is not only one of the top freshmen in the country, but one of the best players regardless of age as he averages 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. However, he needs to take better care of the basketball (40 turnovers). UK routinely hammers the opposition on the glass (+12.8 rebounding differential), and it is hitting 48.2 percent of its field goal attempts, but only 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. Defensively, the 'Cats are yielding 66.3 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .381 overall and .318 from 3-point land. When you factor in their robust scoring average (81.5 ppg) you get a +15.2 scoring margin, most of that built off lopsided wins over inferior competition. Aaron Harrison (15.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg), James Young (13.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Andrew Harrison (10.6 ppg, 3.5 apg) round out the double-digit scorers for coach John Calipari's club, which got a monster game from Randle (29 points, 10 boards) in the recent win over Belmont. Aaron Harrison scored 23 points and dished out seven helpers, while Willie Cauley-Stein finished with 16 points and seven caroms. Cauley-Stein averages 9.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and he has 50 blocks.