For the first time in over 50 years, a state-rivalry match is happening in the Final Four. Kentucky and Louisville have one of the biggest intrastate rivalries in the country, and everything’s come together to make this a volatile matchup.
Make no mistake, however: Louisville is a massive underdog, and it’ll take more than luck to turn the tables on Kentucky. The Wildcats have run through the NCAA tournament so far with ease, boasting speed, length, NBA talent, and surprising unselfishness in dismantling their opponents. Louisville, on the other hand, was a middling Big East team that got hot at the right time.
It’s hard to find a better coaching matchup. Rick Pitino has a long list of accomplishments — including back-to-back NCAA championship games when he was coaching the University of Kentucky — and a history of overachieving with discipline amongst his players. John Calipari is a powerhouse (and controversial) recruiter, turning this year’s Kentucky team into one of the most impressive collections of talent ever assembled, a team that could often win on athleticism alone.
Pitino has disciplined Louisville to play great defense, but they’ve only seen Kentucky’s level of athleticism one other time this season — when they played against Kentucky in December. They came away with a loss. Kentucky’s top two — Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — are a matchup nightmare. Look for them to exploit Louisville inside and on the boards.
For Louisville to put up a fight, three things have to happen. They have to have learned (a lot) from their December meeting and Pitino must try to exploit a weakness — any weakness — that he can find. Louisville has to play with poise and confidence — they’ve played one of the toughest schedules this year and will be going up against a freshman-heavy team that hasn’t been challenged very often. And Rick Pitino will have to dig into his bag of tricks. Pitino is one of the best in-game coaches in the college game, while Calipari has a tendency to be high-strung on the sidelines. If the underdogs can keep it close during the second half, they might find a way to exploit the talent-laden but inexperienced behemoth.
That’s the best news for Louisville. They’re still facing an incredible uphill battle. Anything can happen in the tournament, but expect Kentucky to pull this one out comfortably.