There are always plenty of storylines when Kentucky and Louisville face off, and this season is no exception.
Can Jeff Walz guide the highly rated and unbeaten Cardinals to their first win in Memorial Coliseum since 1979?
Can Matthew Mitchell help Kentucky bounce back from two straight losses on the road?
Before the Cats and Cards meet on Sunday, here are five reasons to be concerned and five reasons to be excited if you’re a Kentucky fan.
Five reasons to be concerned
1. Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country, coming into Memorial Coliseum ranked No. 3 nationally and defeating opponents by an average of nearly 30 points per game. Kentucky is entering on a two-game losing streak. The Cardinals already have two wins over top-10 opponents this year.
2. After a fast start, which saw it ranked in the top 20, Kentucky has lost three of its last five games. Both Mitchell and senior Alyssa Rice seemed to think a combination of playing five games in 11 days, being on the road and finals looming was lethal for UK’s inexperienced bunch. “We were not mentally into those games at the level that we had to be on the road,” Mitchell said.
3. In a not-so-perfect storm if you’re Kentucky, Louisville is No. 25 nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 55.3 points per game. The Cardinals are coming off a recent game where they held Middle Tennessee State to just 26 points. In its last five games, Louisville has limited opponents to 32.5 percent shooting and 28.9 percent from three-point range. The Cats are coming off their worst shooting performance of the year, hitting just 31.7 percent.
4. Louisville is one of the top scoring teams in the country, averaging 84.4 points, hitting 50.4 percent from the field (seventh nationally) and 40 percent from three-point range. And the Cardinals do it in a balanced way, with eight players averaging at least six points and just two in double figures: junior guard Asia Durr and senior forward Myisha Hines-Allen, sister of UK linebacker Josh Allen. So it will be difficult for UK to hide players who are lacking defensively or to focus its efforts on just one Cardinals player. “They are not a one-player band there,” Mitchell said of the Cardinals. “They have a lot of good players.”
5. Kentucky has five newcomers who have never played in a UK-Louisville rivalry game. Until they have been in big games in big environments, it’s not clear how they will perform. That’s especially a concern for the Cats in the post, where the only player with any experience is Rice. Louisville is outscoring opponents in the paint by 22 points per game. The young players are going to have to grow up in a hurry. “The only way you can get better is playing in those types of games and being in that type of environment,” Rice said. “We’ve definitely been working hard in practice to get better.”
Five reasons to be excited
1. If you’re a fan of either program, it’s tough not to get excited when the rivalry game rolls around, and the last five games between these two programs have been intense. Mitchell met with his veterans last week to have them set a more aggressive tone in practice. “To basically go into warrior mode because that’s what this game is going to be,” Rice said. “It’s going to be a battle.” Three of the last five have been decided by five points or fewer, including last season’s 69-67 overtime victory that snapped the Cardinals’ five-game losing streak to UK.
2. The last time Louisville came to Lexington with a ranking this high, the Cardinals cruised to a 21-7 lead in the first half before falling 69-64. That is tied for the fourth-largest comeback in Mitchell’s history as a head coach. To be completely fair, though, UK wasn’t some upstart in that 2013-14 season. The Cats were ranked No. 7 at the time.
3. Despite having some impressive teams travel to Lexington and play in Memorial Coliseum, Louisville somehow hasn’t won a game at the Cats’ primary home venue since Feb. 6, 1979, when both coaches were in elementary school. Overall, the Cardinals are 22-4 when playing Kentucky in Lexington, with the last win coming in 2007 in Rupp Arena.
4. While Louisville has had some dominant wins this season, its closest games have been on the road, including a four-point win at South Dakota State and a five-point overtime win at Ohio State. The Cards’ only other true road game this season was a 13-point victory at Indiana to close out November. Louisville is outscoring opponents by an average of 36 points at home but just 7.3 points on the road.
5. Kentucky junior Taylor Murray had a breakout game last time out against Louisville, scoring a then-career-best 21 points in the overtime loss in the KFC Yum Center. The point guard has scored in double figures both times she’s played the Cardinals, and Mitchell sees her and Maci Morris emerging as go-to players late in games like Makayla Epps was in years past. “Taylor Murray is a tremendous weapon for us late in ball games and is a junior now,” he said. “She has had the ball in her hands late in games before. Those two players have the ability to handle the ball, make a three, get to the basket, make free throws.”
No. 3 Louisville at Kentucky
When: 3 p.m.
Records: Kentucky 8-3; Louisville 12-0
Series: UK leads 52-39
Last meeting: Louisville won 69-67 in overtime on Dec. 4, 2016, in the KFC Yum Center
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630