In the past 2 seasons, the Siemens/NABC Men’s college basketball trophy has resided in the state of Kentucky. The Wildcats took it from New Orleans (site of the Final Four) to Lexington in 2012 led by freshman sensation and former #1 pick Anthony Davis. Head coach John Calipari received his first National Championship as a head coach in his 20th collegiate season. In just one season later, the Cardinals of Louisville cut down the nets in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, earning head coach Rick Pitino his 2nd National title and 7th Final Four appearance. As the beginning of a new season draws closer, both Louisville and Kentucky are not only front-runners to finish first in their respective conferences, but are also preseason ranked top-5 amongst the consensus.
Louisville lost only 26.8% of their scoring due to senior Peyton Siva and junior Gorgui Dieng, who departed early for the NBA Draft. The Cards return an experienced ballclub that features ‘scoring machine’ and Preseason Naismith Player of the Year Candidate Russ Smith. A host of role players assist Smith including juniors Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, sophomore Montrezl Harrell and last year’s tournament Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock. Although Harrell didn’t play as significant of role as the others last season, he will be relied upon more this year to produce on both ends of the floor considering his athletic ability. Replacing Dieng’s center position will be an easier void to fill whereas the point guard position will not. Chris Jones (a Junior College All-American) is the expected starter to join Smith in the backcourt for the defending National Champs. Kevin Ware, a Georgia High School attendee is widely known as the player that suffered a horrific broken leg in last season’s Midwest Regional Final win vs. Duke, and could see valuable minutes off the bench.
Where Louisville mostly relies on their experience, Kentucky is the complete opposite. UK’s youth has been their reputation for recent success and has proved that coach Calipari’s method is a perfect fit for his system that consists of the infamous dribble-drive offense. It’s no secret that Big Blue Nation welcomes arguably the deepest and most talented incoming freshman class since the University of Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’ in 1991 that featured notable NBA greats Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. That team never won a National Championship but those same achievements are not far out of reach for a program that followed up a National Championship season with an early exit in the National Invitation Tournament thanks to Robert Morris of the Northeast Conference. Expectations are high yet again in Lexington with talks of a possible undefeated season although a 2nd title in 3 seasons appear more realistic.
We have yet to see John Calipari be forced to rebuild a team, as us college basketball fans have been so accustomed to his ability to reload and lead the nation’s top ranked recruiting class for the 5th consecutive season. Besides returning two sophomore frontcourt starters in center Willie Cauley-Stein and former McDonald’s All-American Alex Poythress whom both surpassed an opportunity to possibly be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, UK will add eight scholarship freshmen (six of which are McDonald’s All-Americans and ranked in the top-20 nationally). Twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison will arrive on campus as the top point and shooting guards after high school following the departure of Georgia State transfer Ryan Harrow. Dakari Johnson, a pogo stick with lanky frame will assist the frontcourt accompanied by versatile, athletic slasher James Young and who many consider the cream of this young crop… Julius Randle. So with unmatchable talent on paper, where are the weaknesses on this roster? An identical season considering its youth and chemistry could raise red flags; not to mention, they will have to capitalize on their free-throw percentage in comparison to where they ranked in conference play just a season ago (12th in SEC at 64%).
The fierce rivalry of two powerhouse programs separated by only 80 miles will meet this season three days after Christmas in Rupp Arena. Last season Louisville snapped a four game losing streak held by Kentucky although the Wildcats lead the meeting with the Cardinals 30-15. This season will mark the 100 year anniversary of the rivalry since their very first meeting was held. A classic game is expected but there can only be one winner…Italian vs. Italian, Hall of Famer vs. Hall of Famer… Champion vs. Champion.