John Clay: Louisville's depth, defense, maturity too much for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports Columnist,John ClayDecember 28, 2012 

At a glance, this has all the makings of an upset. Kentucky is the talented underdog few think can win. Louisville is the team with the home court, the incentive and all the pressure to perform. The Cats should be loose. The Cards could be over-hyped. It's the spoiler scenario.

I can't see it, however. Not an upset. Not this year. Not this time.

When John Calipari carries his personal four-game winning streak over Rick Pitino and Louisville into the KFC Yum Center on Saturday afternoon, history will take the background to which is the better team.

Louisville is the better team. The Cards are older, deeper, stronger, more well-rounded. U of L may not possess a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick or the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, but it still has enough factors in its favor to claim a year's worth of bragging rights.

Louisville is better defensively. Shoot, the Cards are better defensively than any collegiate team in the 50 states, surrendering a meager 0.802 points per possession. (That's very good, by the way.)

It was defense that propelled Pitino to another Final Four last season. Defense is what this current team is built around.

This is especially true when it comes to Pitino's trademark full-court pressure. The Cards are turning opponents over nearly once every three trips down the floor.

Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow has improved by leaps and bounds since returning to the team from an early-season illness. He has not been careless with the ball, committing an average of 1.36 turnovers per 40 minutes on the floor. (John Wall's number was 4.63 his UK year.) But Harrow hasn't faced the type of pressure he will face Saturday.

"This is going to be a physical, body-on-body game," said Calipari on Friday.

Louisville is better in the front court, too. And we're not declaring this because Gorgui Dieng, U of L's 6-foot-11 center, returns from a seven-game absence necessitated by a broken wrist. Dieng's presence should give Louisville a nice lift, not so much for his shot-swatting as for his glass-eating. His rustiness is an X-factor, however. Even without Dieng, Louisville owns a tough trio.

A now-healthy Wayne Blackshear is a sophomore small forward coming into his own. Calipari called Chane Behanan the best offensive rebounder UK will face all season. Montrezl Harrell is a beast off the bench. He logged 31 minutes in Louisville's win at Memphis.

(Notice, we haven't even mentioned Louisville's backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, considered by many the strength of the team.)

Calipari's old school, Memphis, is the cautionary tale here. The Tigers were a bit over-caffeinated for Louisville's visit two weeks ago. The home team rocketed to a 16-point first-half cushion (25-9) before ultimately crashing, burning and losing 87-78.

Louisville has a better coach than Memphis. Louisville is a more mature team than Memphis. As compared to UK? You can argue the coaching comparison ad nauseam. The second point falls clearly in Louisville's favor.

"Louisville is a well-oiled machine," said Calipari on Friday. "We're a work in progress."

Kentucky still needs plenty of work. The Cats have improved since that home-court loss to Baylor, but those were cozy home games against inferior competition. There's still a feeling that this 2012-13 edition hasn't quite yet come together.

Besides, the last time Calipari took his youngsters out for a true road game they were spanked at Notre Dame. Louisville is better than Notre Dame.

Even well-oiled machines can break down, of course. That's not likely Saturday, however. Says here Pitino snaps his Calipari skid. Elephant leaves chest. With room to spare. Louisville 70, UK 59.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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