Five things about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, those arch-rival Louisville Cardinals:
1. Does absence make the heart grow fonder?
You’re going to miss him, right? Come on, it’s the first time since the 2000-01 season -- can you even remember back that far? -- that Slick Rick or Traitor Rick or Righteous Rick or whatever you might want to call the former Kentucky now former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino will not be part of the UK-U of L basketball rivalry.
When we last saw Rick in Rupp Arena, he was discreetly, though not discreetly enough, sending a one-finger salute to a heckling fan on his way to not showing up for the post-game press conference.
Pitino denies he did any such thing. But then Pitino has been doing plenty of denying lately, from the Karen Sypher sex scandal, to the Minardi Hall stripper scandal to the FBI investigation which implicated Pitino’s program concerning alleged NCAA violations. Definition: Last straw.
On my Kentucky-Louisville preview podcast, Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal made an interesting Pitino point. U of L will undoubtedly miss his peerless preparation and X and O ability. On the other hand, while the Hall of Famer hated the UK-U of L game in the worst way, he wanted to win the game in the worst way. Because of that, Louisville’s players tended to play tight. Will no Pitino mean no pressure for the Cards? We shall see.
2. Louisville has its Q factor
There are only two native Kentuckians expected to be in the starting lineup for this year’s game. Both play for Louisville. One is Ray Spalding. We’ll get to him in a second. The other is Quentin Snider, U of L’s senior point guard out of Louisville Ballard High School, who lived the dream in last year’s game.
After failing to score in his previous two UK-U of L meetings, Snider exploded for a career-high 22 points in the Cards’ 73-70 win at the KFC Yum Center. He made 10 of 19 shots, including a pair of three-pointers. He also contributed six rebounds and five assists. He won MVP honors.
After averaging 12.4 points and 4.1 assists a game last season, Snider is averaging 12.3 points and 3.9 assists this year. He is shooting the ball better overall, 42.9 percent this year compared to 38.5 percent last season. He has not shot the three as well, however, down to 35.2 this year after 37.3 percent last season. He has scored in double figures in seven straight games.
3. Ray Spalding may be trending at the right time
Now to Spalding, the 6-foot-10 junior forward out of Trinity High School who is coming off his best career game as a Cardinal. In Louisville’s 74-56 win over Thunder Dan Majerle and Grand Canyon last week, Spalding scored a career-high 21 points and snatched a career-high 16 rebounds as U of L improved to 10-2.
Spalding has plenty of talent. He’s close to averaging a double-double on the season at 10.8 points and 9.6 rebounds. He’s blocking 2.3 shots per game and can step out and occasionally shoot the three. He’s three-of-10 from behind the line on the season.
In last year’s Cards-Cats clash, Spalding managed six points and seven rebounds in just 13 minutes on the floor. He should be much more of a presence on Friday. Possibly, a formidable presence.
4. Louisville has seen those FBI shirts before
Before being sacked, Rick Pitino was still around to fill out Louisville’s non-conference schedule, so there hasn’t been a lot of meat in the Cards’ diet. To be fair, Indiana and Memphis are usually better versions of their current selves. Regardless, Pomeroy puts U of L at No. 266 out of 351 teams in his strength of schedule rankings.
Unlike Kentucky, Louisville has played a game on an opponent’s home floor. That was the trip to Purdue for the ACC/Big 10 Challenge where U of L was greeted by Purdue students wearing black FBI t-shirts and brandishing wicked signage.
The Cards lost 66-57, but they led 11-4 early, 36-31 with 14:02 remaining and 48-47 with 6:04 left before unforced errors undid their upset bid
Rupp Arena will be different. UK-U of L is different. But in seniors Snider and Anas Mahmoud, plus juniors Spalding and Deng Adel, the Cardinals do have the experience advantage. And they’ve seen the shirts and signs before.
5. These Cards are sultans of swat
Last year, according to Pomeroy, Louisville boasted the eighth-most efficient defense in all of college basketball. The Cards ranked No. 2 in that category in 2015-16, fourth in 2014-15, fifth in 2013-14 and first in their championship season of 2012-13.
This year, Louisville is ranked 60th in adjusted offensive efficiency, but 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Opponents are shooting just 37.6 percent from the field against U of L. They’re shooting just 29.8 percent from three-point range.
They’re turning opponents over on 20.2 percent of their possessions. As U of L’s radio color analyst Bob Valvano pointed out in my column on David Padgett, the interim coach likes to trap out of the press, a departure from Pitino’s philosophy.
Where this team really excels is blocking shots. Louisville is averaging 8.4 blocked shots per game. Only Michigan State (8.8) blocks more. Mahmoud blocked nine shots in games against Siena and Albany, eight against Omaha and seven against Memphis. Spalding has blocked five shots in three different games -- St. Francis, Indiana and Memphis.
Louisville’s game-by-game shooting percentages
U of L