Indianapolis, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - Of all the Sweet 16 matchups, there may be none bigger than the battle for the state of Kentucky.
The two most recent NCAA national basketball champions will meet Friday in an epic matchup. The eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats will clash with the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for more than just the right to advance to the Elite Eight. They'll be playing for state supremacy and the ultimate bragging rights.
Kentucky advanced past the top seeded team in the Midwest Region, Wichita State, on Sunday by a score of 78-76. The Wildcats have won two straight games in the tournament since narrowly losing to Florida in the SEC Tournament finals.
Louisville has won seven consecutive games dating back to the regular season, and advanced to the Sweet 16 with two hard-fought games against Manhattan and Saint Louis. The defending national champs were able to pull away from the Billikens late in last Saturday's contest for the 66-51 victory.
These intrastate rivals have met on the court 46 times in their rich history, and Kentucky holds a 31-15 all-time series lead. The two squads met on the court earlier this season in Lexington, with Kentucky earning a 73-66 win.
Kentucky did something on Sunday no other team in 2013-14 had been able to accomplish, and that was hand a loss to the Wichita State Shockers. The two- point win for the Wildcats came down to the very last second, as a Fred VanVleet's 3-point attempt at the buzzer missed, which gave Kentucky the two- point victory. Andrew Harrison had a monster game for Kentucky, netting a team-high 20 points in the contest. Aaron Harrison chipped in with 19 points, and Julius Randle tallied a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds with six assists. James Young was the fourth UK player in double digits, adding 13 points and eight boards.
The freshman sensation Randle still tops the Kentucky squad in both the scoring and rebounding categories. Randle, who has played in 36 games this season, averages 15.1 ppg and 10.6 rpg, shooting 50.3 percent from the floor in his only year as a Wildcat. Young is right behind Randle in scoring at 14.3 ppg, followed by the Harrison twins. Aaron Harrison nets 14.1 ppg, and Andrew Harrison rounds out the double-digit Kentucky scorers with 11 ppg, adding a team-best 137 assists to his resume. Willie Cauley-Stein tops the Wildcats roster with 106 blocked shots on the year.
After a vicious comeback against NC State in the second round of the tournament, the Saint Louis Billikens wanted to get off to a strong start against defending national champion Louisville. The Billikens owned a lead several minutes into the game, but Louisville took care of that with a late- period run. The Cardinals led at the half, 25-16, in an ugly offensive display, and endured a Saint Louis comeback attempt in the second half to hold on for the win. Luke Hancock connected on 4-of-12 from 3-point range and led the Cardinals in scoring in the contest with 21 points. Russ Smith and Chris Jones each netted 11 points, and Montrezl Harrell notched a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards.
Smith's amazing senior season continues. The feisty guard can get to the basket at will, which is reflected in his team-leading 18.1 ppg scoring average. But scoring isn't his only strength, as Smith tops the Cardinals with 169 assists on the year, adding 73 steals to his resume. The sophomore Harrell has come into his own both offensively and defensively as the replacement for Gorgui Dieng. Harrell averages 14 ppg and a team-leading 8.4 rpg, and also has a team high-tying 49 blocked shots. Hancock chips in 12.1 ppg for Louisville, and Jones adds 10.4 ppg. The Cardinals have a huge advantage in scoring differentials. Louisville nets 81.4 ppg through 36 contests, and gives up just 60.8 ppg to opponents.
Kentucky and Louisville match up extremely well, with the Wildcats owning the size advantage. Louisville has a speed advantage, along with seniority. Smith and Jones may have an extremely hard time trying to get shots off against the significantly larger Harrison brothers (both listed at 6-foot-6). But with speed and quick passes, the Cardinals can break that threat.