It’s the match-up everyone has been waiting for: an in-state rivalry between two storied programs that utterly despise each other.
No, we’re not talking about Duke and North Carolina. We’re talking about Louisville and Kentucky, which will meet in the Sweet 16 this Friday.
Louisville, a 4-seed, and Kentucky, an 8-seed, are two of the most underrated teams in recent tournament memory – especially Kentucky.
“This is a team that, on paper, is as talented as any team in the field, any team certainly left in the field,” Westwood One’s Kevin Kugler said of the Wildcats on The Damon Amendolara Show. “And when you look at his squad from front to back, they have all the pieces. They’ve got wing play in James Young; they’ve got a strong backcourt, albeit very young; they’ve got Julius Randle, potentially one of the most dominant players in the game; they’ve got Willie Cauley-Stein, who is a defensive eraser in the back line; and you’ve even got experience coming off the bench in Alex Poythress (and) you’ve got Dakari Johnson.
“It’s certainly not your average 8-seed,” Kugler continued. “It’s just a young team that seems to have come together at the right time, and it really started right before the SEC Tournament with this squad.”
Kentucky pushed No. 1 overall seed Florida to the brink in the SEC Championship, ultimately losing, 61-60. The Wildcats, however, have since beaten No. 9 Kansas State, 56-49, and No. 1 Wichita State, 78-76.
Finally, this team is playing as John Calipari envisioned at the start of the season – and finally, perhaps, he’s coaching it the right way.
“Coach Cal has said he kind of screwed up with this team in the middle of the season,” Kugler said. “He made some tweaks late in the year that he thinks are the difference. His kids certainly seem very comfortable with the way they’re playing right now, and it’s showing on the court.”
Kentucky withstood an epic effort from the Shockers last Sunday, overcoming 31 points from Cleanthony Early and 20 from Ron Baker to advance to the Sweet 16.
“That Wichita State squad – I know a lot of people (dismissed) their schedule, but that was a real, real good basketball team that Kentucky beat last week,” Kugler said. “The only shame of that is I’d like to see Wichita State keep playing. They were a fun team to watch, but Kentucky got the best of them and now they get the chance to take on their in-state rivals once more.”
Louisville advanced to the second weekend after uninspiring wins over No. 13 Manhattan and No. 5 Saint Louis.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals will face Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Louisville lost to the Wildcats in the Final Four in 2012.
Kugler expects a much different game this time around.
“I think it’s different for a couple reasons,” he said. “One, you’ve got some different faces obviously. The Kentucky squad is completely different with most of the turnover in Coach Cal’s continuing quest to go as young as possible, it seems, every year and bring in as much fresh talent as he can. And you’ve got a Louisville team that comes in with certainly a lot more confidence than they would have had a couple of years ago, having won the national championship a year ago.”