This season's Cardinals seem to go as Edgar Sosa goes, so a monster performance likely means the Cards will have a shot. While his career has been up-and-down, he has produced big moments in big games, including 31 points against Texas A&M as a freshman and the game-winning three-pointer against UK last season. John Wall has been everything UK Coach John Calipari could have hoped for and then some. In addition to his on-court brilliance, his demeanor has been a steadying influence as the Cats have broken in a new system and mixed three freshman starters with a core of veterans. He also has been a better three-point shooter than advertised (43 percent).
This is another matchup of big-game experience versus young talent. Jerry Smith is a battled-tested veteran who — despite inconsistency — can perform in the clutch. Normally a reliable shooter, his three-point stroke has been off this season (12-for-52, 23.1 percent). Somewhat lost in the Wall hype has been the solid start of Eric Bledsoe. UK's other freshman guard can get into too much of a hurry and turn it over, and he's not quite the marvel in transition that Wall is. But Bledsoe can still break down a defense and get to the rim, and like Wall has been surprisingly good from long range (50 percent). Bledsoe has been slowed at times by a bad ankle.
Samardo Samuels needs to show he can be dominant against elite competition. Connecticut and Michigan State were the two best teams Louisville played last season, and Samuels went scoreless in both contests. Don't be surprised to see Louisville go to Samuels early and often, not only to establish some stability in its half-court sets but also to try to get DeMarcus Cousins in foul trouble. Cousins' numbers are astounding — he's averaging 15 points and nine rebounds despite averaging only 19 minutes per game. But he is an emotional player and this will be an emotional game: He needs to keep his head in check and avoid silly fouls that could land him an early seat on the bench.
Jared Swopshire has made strides as a sophomore but will have his hands full trying to contain Patrick Patterson on the block. A capable shooter, Swopshire could provide some value to the Cards by pulling the UK big men out on the floor and knocking down a three or two. Patterson is quietly putting together a nice junior season. This looks like Kentucky's most favorable matchup, so when the Cards play man-to-man, look for Patterson to get plenty of touches.
Reginald Delk, the nephew of former UK star and current Wildcat assistant Tony Delk, has been U of L's most consistent performer from the perimeter, shooting 49 percent from the field and 47 percent from three-point range. His seven turnovers are also the lowest among Louisville's regulars. Darius Miller has settled nicely into his role as a complementary scorer and distributor. Miller gets a lot of open shots on the perimeter because teams have been focusing on Wall, Patterson and Cousins, and Miller is shooting 44 percent from behind the arc.
The Cards don't lose much when they go to the bench. Junior Preston Knowles might be their best all-around guard. Peyton Siva is a promising freshman but has been bothered by the stomach flu and might not play. Terrence Jennings is a long and athletic big man who has yet to reach his potential, but he can be effective in spurts. Each of UK's bench players has carved out a niche: a shooter (Darnell Dodson), an inside banger (Daniel Orton), a hustling defender (Ramon Harris), and a wing slasher with length (DeAndre Liggins).
Louisville will come in with something to prove after a pair of ugly December losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina. The key will be how the Cards handle the Rupp Arena environment. Most of the pressure will be on Kentucky. The Cats are not only expected to win but to win big. And while they are 14-0, they've been pushed at Rupp by lesser teams (Miami (Ohio), Sam Houston State, Long Beach State). And last season a Louisville team that would go into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed needed a late Sosa three-pointer to beat a UK team that wound up in the NIT. And Pitino led an underdog U of L squad into Rupp and knocked off Kentucky when it was No. 1 in the polls back in 2003.