Cards counter Cats' size with speed, group rebounding

mmaloney@herald-leader.comDecember 23, 2013 

Louisville Cardinals guard Russ Smith (2) lead the break with the whole Kentucky defense in pursuit as Kentucky played Louisville on Saturday December 29, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Size matters. As does speed. Which one wins out could decide who wins the Kentucky-Louisville game Saturday in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky has a clear size advantage. Kentucky will dress five players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller, including 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Nimble but powerful 6-foot-9 Julius Randle is a tough matchup for every team.

Louisville has 6-10 freshman Mangok Mathiang and 6-9 senior Stephan Van Treese. The other Cards stand 6-8 or less.

Montrezl Harrell, a 6-8 sophomore, leads U of L with 8.3 rebounds a game.

The Cards are smaller but one of the quickest teams in the country. What they lack in size, the Cardinals try to make up for with great guard play.

They try to use quickness to create havoc on defense. That defense, when going to plan, begets instant offense.

"We're not worried about the offensive end; we're just trying to get better on defense," said Chris Jones, U of L's 5-10 point guard, who averages 13.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. "... Against a big team, I think we'll have to help our post a lot more with these games coming up."

Despite any shortcoming, U of L has outrebounded 10 of 12 opponents. The Cards have outrebounded opponents by an average of 41.1-33.8.

"We've just got to make up for it," said 6-1 freshman Terry Rozier, who grabbed 10 rebounds in a recent 79-63 win over Western Kentucky. "If all five guys go (to the glass), then that makes up for us not being that big down low or in the middle. We just want to make up for it."

In addition to Jones and Rozier, U of L's undersized quick clique includes 6-5 forward Wayne Blackshear and Russ Smith, a 6-0 senior guard whom Coach Rick Pitino calls "the premier player in the country."

"He's been to back-to-back Final Fours, back-to-back Big East championships and he's won a national championship," Pitino said after the Western Kentucky game. "And Russ has improved his game to where he's now ... 2-to-1 assists (to) turnovers, he's improved his shot selection and he's playing great basketball."

Smith is averaging 16.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5 assists, with only 2.4 turnovers.

Blackshear, who adds 10.3 points and 3.0 rebounds, says that no matter the opponent, "we've still got to play Louisville basketball. That's what it comes down to."

Louisville basketball is, as defined by Blackshear, "hard defense, get into your man, try to wear your opponent down."

Which leads to transition offense and high-percentage run-outs.

"Oh, yeah. That's where I think our best basketball comes, when the guards get in there and rebound, and automatically can push," Blackshear said. "You've got guys like me, Tim (Henderson) and Luke (Hancock) on the wings that can knock down shots, and Russ and Terry that can create their own shots. It's going to be hard to guard us."

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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