UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky-Louisville rebound battle boils down to who wants it more

Senior Alex Poythress is Kentucky’s leading rebounder at 7.3 boards per game. Junior Marcus Lee is right behind at 7.2.
Senior Alex Poythress is Kentucky’s leading rebounder at 7.3 boards per game. Junior Marcus Lee is right behind at 7.2. Herald-Leader

Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game matches two of college basketball’s best rebounding teams. Louisville was ranked second nationally with an average rebound margin of plus 16.5 going into Tuesday night’s game against Missouri-Kansas City. Kentucky ranked No. 27 at plus 8.6.

This prompted at least two questions: What does it take to be a good rebounder? What qualities should be on display in Rupp Arena?

When asked these questions, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale recalled being invited by Howard Garfinkel to lecture at the famed 5-Star Basketball Camp.

“It was raining cats and dogs,” Vitale said. “They had to move everything inside.”

After speaking to the campers and schmoozing with camp officials, Vitale happened to look out a window. What he saw made a lasting impression.

Moses Malone, then a high school prospect, was throwing a ball against the backboard and then tipping it in with his right hand, then his left. Again and again.

“In the rain,” Vitale said. “There’s a reason he is what he is. He wanted to be a rebounder.”

Malone finished his professional career with 16,212 rebounds, the fifth-most in NBA history.

That want-to makes all the difference in rebounding, several former players said.

It boils down to “going after the ball,” another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, said. “First and foremost, it’s a mentality.”

Joe Kleine, who led Arkansas in rebounding three straight seasons, said much the same thing.

“They come in all sizes,” he said of good rebounders. To make the point, he cited Detroit Piston teammates Dennis Rodman, who was 6-foot-7, and Bill Laimbeer, who was 6-11.

“It helps to have muscle to hold a position,” Kleine said. But what separates great rebounders, he added, is a willingness to go after the ball with reckless abandon.

“It’s a gift,” he said.

Kleine played against Malone in the NBA.

“He was a nightmare,” Kleine said. “Very crafty and intelligent about it. He didn’t jump much. He was pure position.”

Len Elmore, the career leader in rebounding for Maryland, considers offensive rebounding the truer test.

“Certainly, defensive rebounding is something to be counted,” he said. “But the real rebounders are the ones that offensive rebound.”

When asked to define “real” rebounding, Elmore said, “Rebounding is all about desire. Certainly, there are fundamental skills you have to master. But it begins with the desire. If you don’t desire to stick your nose in there, if you don’t desire to command that real estate, you’re not going to be a very good rebounder. You’re going to get pushed out of the way. You’re going to be knocked out of the way. And you’re going to get intimidated.”

Louisville averaged 15.4 offensive rebounds per game going into Tuesday night. Kentucky averages 14.4.

Louisville’s offensive rebounding is all the more impressive given how the Cardinals ranked No. 6 nationally in shooting accuracy (51.8 percent). So there are fewer rebounds to grab.

Then again, U of L had ranked No. 3 nationally in field-goal defense, with opponents making only 35.2 percent of their shots. The misses at that end of the court increased the chances to rebound.

On his radio show last week, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino saluted the rebounding ability of Western Kentucky’s Justin Johnson.

“He’s a professional rebounder,” Pitino said. “He considers every shot a pass to him.”

Johnson, a 6-7, 235-pound sophomore from Hazard, scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds against Louisville last weekend. For the season, he averaged 16.5 points and 8.8 rebounds going into Tuesday night’s game against Detroit.

Louisville’s rebounding prowess suffered a setback when Mangok Mathiang broke a bone in his left foot against Western Kentucky. He is expected to be sidelined six to eight weeks. But the Cardinals seem to have a roster full of players who want to rebound. Mathiang (5.7 rpg) was one of 11 U of L players averaging three or more rebounds a game.

Chinanu Onuaku led the way with an average of 7.5.

Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee lead Kentucky in rebounding with averages of 7.3 and 7.2 respectively.

Several factors play a part in being a good rebounder, Vitale said. Size helps. So does agility and mobility.

“First of all, it starts with being aggressive,” he said. “You’ve got to want the ball.”

Vitale said he looked to three areas to determine a player’s level of aggression: 1. Offensive rebounding; 2. Shot-blocking; 3. Forcing turnovers, steals and deflections.

Elmore agreed. Then he added, “But the activity is what it comes down to.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Saturday

Louisville at Kentucky

Noon (CBS)

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