How strong is this year’s Final Four? Louisville vs. Kentucky, which features too many incredible storylines to list them all, isn’t even the marquee prime-time game. The fourth-seeded Cardinals and top-overall seed Wildcats tip around 6:10 p.m. EST on Saturday night and the entire state of Kentucky, guaranteed, will be shut down to watch this matchup.
The two schools separated by about 75 miles in the basketball-crazy commonwealth meet for the first time ever on this big of a stage and first time in the Big Dance since the Mideast Regional final in 1983 (four previous NCAA Tournament matchups overall). It’s the first Final Four intrastate matchup since Cincinnati topped Ohio State in the championship games in 1961 and ’62. Red vs. Blue. Urban Louisville (at least by Kentucky standards) vs. rural Lexington. And Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari.
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Pitino, who brought Kentucky a national title in 1996, is now an enemy in Lexington despite rescuing that program from NCAA sanctions. And he goes against Calipari, a former close friend but now a chilly acquaintance at best (“We don’t send each other Christmas cards,” said Pitino). Pitino was the one who essentially got Calipari hired at UMass to start his head coaching career, with Pitino kicking in $5,000 to his alma mater out of his pocket to supplement Calipari’s salary to close the deal. Of course, Coach Cal is still looking for his first NCAA title – it was Pitino’s Kentucky team that beat Calipari’s UMass club in the 1996 Final Four. Calipari also came up a few seconds short at Memphis in the 2008 National Championship Game vs. Kansas and with the Cats in last year’s national semifinals.
Pitino was 6-2 against the Cardinals at Kentucky and is 4-7 against the Wildcats at Louisville. He’s also 0-3 against Calipari, none of them very close.
Louisville vs. Kentucky Betting Story Lines
Louisville (30-9) is playing as well as anyone. The Cards lost three of four to close the regular season but then won four games in four days for the Big East Tournament crown. The Cardinals were underdogs in the Sweet 16 against No. 1 Michigan State and Elite Eight vs. No. 7 Florida. But U of L handled the Spartans surprisingly easily, 57-44, as Sparty shot only 28 percent from the field and its 44 points being the fewest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the shot clock era. Against the Gators the Cardinals had to rally, and they outscored Florida by 15 points over the final 10 minutes for a 72-68 victory in the West Regional final. UF shot just 1-for-12 in the final eight minutes and 0-for-9 from three-point range in the second half. It’s the sixth Final Four for Pitino and first since 2005.
Kentucky (36-2) appears to have gotten a wake-up call it needed in the SEC Tournament final in losing to Vanderbilt after running the table in the regular-season conference schedule. The Cats haven’t been challenged much yet in this tournament, winning each game by at least 12 points (first team since 2009 champ UNC to win its first four tourney games by double digits). In fact, UK’s Elite Eight 82-70 win over No. 3 Baylor might have been its most impressive victory of the season. Kentucky took control with an early 16-0 run and led by 20 at halftime. The only scare in that game was when superstar freshman Anthony Davis, the National Player of the Year, went down with an injured left knee early in the second half, but he quickly returned and will be fine. He had his best game of this tournament against the Bears with 18 points, 11 boards and six blocks.
As usual, these schools faced off in the regular season, with then-No. 3 UK winning, 69-62, over No. 4 Louisville in Rupp Arena on Dec. 31. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist easily had his best game of his freshman season for UK with 24 points and 19 rebounds. Davis added 18 points, all in the second half, as well as 10 rebounds and six blocks. Russ Smith led U of L with 30; no other player had more than eight. The Cards led only at 2-0 in the game but did rally from 15 down to tie it at one point in the second half.
I would argue the key player in this entire game is Louisville sophomore center Gorgui Dieng. He has to do what Davis does for the Cats: rebound, block shots and alter the ones he can’t get to in helping to neutralize Davis. Dieng had five points, five boards and six blocks in the first meeting with UK but Louisville was crushed on the boards, 49-28. At least the free-throw discrepancy should be better this time. Thanks no doubt to the home-court advantage in the first meeting, UK shot a whopping 43 free throws and made 32. U of L was 18-for-27. Neither team shot well from long range in that game – no team has been better defending the three-point basket in this tournament than Louisville.
Louisville vs. Kentucky Betting Odds and Key Trends
UK opened as an 8.5-point betting favorite with the total at 137.5 on NCAA basketball odds. The Cards are 22-13-1 ATS this season overall and 8-0 ATS on neutral courts (8-0 SU). Kentucky is 15-21-1 ATS overall and 5-5 ATS on neutral courts. (9-1 SU). ‘Over/under’ records: UK 16-19-2. U of L 15-21-0.
Louisville is 4-0 ATS in past four games as an underdog at a neutral site. The Cards are 7-2 ATS in their past nine as an underdog overall. Kentucky has covered just three of its past 15 nonconference games. The under is 9-1 in Louisville’s past 10 games vs. teams with a winning record. The over is 4-0 in Kentucky’s past four games. Louisville has covered in only two of the past eight meetings with UK.
NCAA Final Four Predictions: Louisville vs. Kentucky Betting Prediction
Louisville is looking more and more like last season’s champion UConn Huskies. Just like Connecticut last year, the Cardinals dropped four of their last six regular-season games before winning the Big East Tournament. The Cardinals lost eight conference games, one fewer than the Huskies last year. And last year’s Huskies also faced Kentucky in the Final Four.
As for the coaching matchup, Pitino and Calipari have squared off 22 total times as head coaches, with each coming away with 11 wins. The two met six times in the NBA and 16 as college coaches. Calipari rides a three-game win streak into their Final Four meeting. The pressure is clearly on Coach Cal’s Cats as they have way more talent and likely, at a minimum, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are goners after this season. Calipari will continue to wear the monkey on his back as “can’t win the big one” if UK doesn’t cut down the next Monday in New Orleans.
Both teams are better than the first meeting, but Kentucky is invincible at Rupp while beatable away from there. Thus, I am taking Louisville and the points here, although UK likely wins a close one. Also go with the under.
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