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The beauty of No. 6 Louisville vs. No. 18 Kentucky is the unpredictability

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Two months ago, the Battle of the Bluegrass that will take place on Saturday afternoon was the single-most highly-anticipated game of the college basketball season.

Two of the nation’s top three teams — the last two national champions — squaring off in a game that just-so-happens to be the most intense rivalry in the sport these days? It’s should come as no surprise, then, that the entire state of Kentucky and every college hoops media member circled this date on their calendar the second that we knew what the date was.

But thanks to some early season struggles, No. 6 Louisville’s visit to No. 18 Kentucky isn’t even the best game on Saturday afternoon. That title goes to the battle of the undefeateds between No. 2 Syracuse and No. 8 Villanova.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t be looking forward to that 4:00 p.m. tipoff on Saturday.

Quite the opposite, actually.

In fact, what makes the game so intriguing is the unknown. This is not an exaggeration: There is nothing that could happen in this game that would surprise me, save for Willie Cauley-Stein hitting 10 threes or Chane Behanan hitting all his free throws.

Louisville is one of the best teams in the country. They are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings, posting the nation’s most efficient offense while slotting in fifth in defensive efficiency. They do what every Rick Pitino team has done: press, force turnovers, rely on the playmaking ability of their back court. The Cardinals are legit, and it would shock no one if they went into Rupp and beat the Wildcats.

But part of the reason for that is that Kentucky has not been themselves thus far this season. Or maybe they have and we just expected too much. John Calipari has a group that has now lost to the three marquee opponents they have played by a total of 13 points. All three of those losses came on the road or on a neutral court. In all three games, there was one part of Kentucky’s performance that cost them the win.

In other words, the talent on this roster is evident. Getting that talent to play together has been a tougher task that Cal expected.

Is this the game that they finally breakthrough?

Because at the end of the day, neither Kentucky nor Louisville has an elite victory this season. The Cards lost to North Carolina in fairly ugly fashion, getting worked over at Mohegan Sun back in November. Both teams really need this win, not just to right their ship and get their season headed in the right direction. And it’s not just to earn bragging rights in the Commonwealth for the next 12 months.

It’s to ease the fears of a slow start. Doubts are creeping in on both sides of the rivalry, and a loss on Saturday will only escalate those doubts.

So who gets the win?

Well, there are two keys to this game the way I see it.

First and foremost, the Harrison twins are going to have to be able to handle Louisville’s pressure. They cannot turn the ball over and give the Cardinals easy run outs. Kentucky’s biggest knock is on the defensive end of the floor, and they last thing they need to do is allow the Cards to get run out after run out after run out. Protect the ball, maximize possessions offensively and eliminate those easy buckets. Sounds easy, right?

The other key to the game will be the battle of the front courts. Julius Randle is as good as anyone in the country at drawing fouls and getting opposing bigs into foul trouble. Louisville has some bigs that can hold their own against Randle in the post, but those kids — Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan, Mangok Mathiang, Stephen Van Treese — have a bad habit of getting into foul trouble.

Kentucky-Louisville has lost some of its luster from the preseason, but this is still must-see TV.

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

VIDEO: Mark Gottfried on Sunday’s N.C. State performance: ‘It’s embarrasing’

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Mark Gottfried is probably the happiest man in the world that his N.C. State team played – and lost – a home game against Georgia Tech on Sunday night, overlapping with the end of the thrilling Green Bay-Dallas NFC Playoff game.

No one was talking about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joe Giglio of the News & Observer was there and, like he did after last weekend’s loss at Boston College, he took Gottfried to task for his team’s performance.

The biggest issue? Gottfried’s nonchalance at the way that a team with the talent to finish in the top six of the ACC and get to a Final Four is playing. The Wolfpack should not be sitting at 1-4 in the ACC having already played BC and Georgia Tech. Gottfried told the media after on the loss to Boston College that his team “got better,” which was as laughable then as it is now.

On Sunday night, he certainly did not try and view his team through rose-colored glasses:

That’s about as mad and emotional as you’ll see Gottfried get.

And he’s got every right to be mad, because the Wolfpack – who count a future top five pick, another future first rounder and at least three more guys that will get a shot on NBA Summer League teams – currently sit at the bottom of the ACC standings and third-to-last in KenPom’s ACC rankings.

The biggest issue is on the defensive end of the floor, which Gottfried made so clear Sunday.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”

The numbers back it up. N.C. State is dead last in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and the only high-major programs that are worse than them defensively are Michigan, Washington State, DePaul, LSU, Washington and Arizona State. The Wolfpack are by far the most talented team out of that group, and probably the most athletic as well. They should be good defensively, but, if you talk to coaches in the league and NBA scouts that have watched that team play, the most consistent knock on them is, simply, that they don’t play hard.

And that may be more worrying than any of the results the Wolfpack have posted this season.

“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks:

No. 2 Kansas utilizes mismatches to outlast Iowa State

AMES, IA - JANUARY 16: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks battles for the ball with Monte Morris #11 of the Iowa State Cyclones, and Matt Thomas #21 of the Iowa State Cyclones in the first half of play at Hilton Coliseum on January 16, 2017 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
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Kansas used its size advantage to pound the glass as the Jayhawks outlasted Iowa State for a 76-72 Big 12 road win on Monday.

Using only a seven-man rotation once again, Kansas (17-1, 6-0) used its size advantage on the interior and on the wings to crush the Cyclones on the boards as they outrebounded Iowa State 41-22. With a huge advantage on the interior, Kansas focused on working the ball inside-out as they shot 54 percent from the floor.

Kansas did a great job of finding mismatches on the offensive end and had a balanced scoring effort as all seven players scored between 16 and six points. Senior Frank Mason paced the Jayhawks with 16 points and chipped in six rebounds while Landen Lucas (14 points), Svi Mykhailiuk (13 points) and Carlton Bragg (10 points) all finished in double figures.

Iowa State (11-6, 3-3) was able to hang with Kansas for the entire game but they just couldn’t get over the hump every time they would cut the lead to around four points. The Cyclones tried to use a little bit of Hilton Magic to make a late charge, as Monte Morris (23 points) made two free throws to cut the Kansas lead to three with under 20 seconds left but it ultimately wasn’t enough.

With Iowa State lacking the size to matchup with Kansas, the Cyclone offense had a lot of one-and-done possessions since they had no offensive rebounders that were a threat. The Kansas perimeter defense limited Iowa State to a lot of contested jumpers as the Cyclones shot 33.3 percent (9-for-27) three-point shooting. Deonte Burton added 21 points for Iowa State while Naz Mitrou-Long added 18 points.

It’s never easy to win at Iowa State, so the Jayhawks will certainly take this win and be happy with it as they just seem to have a huge matchup advantage against the Cyclones this season.

Jenkins, Brunson, lead No. 1 Villanova past Seton Hall 76-46

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Kris Jenkins scored 16 points and Jalen Brunson added 13 to lead No. 1 Villanova to a 76-46 win over Seton Hall on Monday.

The Wildcats (18-1, 6-1 Big East) looked every bit like a team that could win back-to-back national championships in their first game at No. 1 in The AP Top 25 poll following a one-week hiatus.

Villanova fell from the top spot to third in the poll following a Jan. 4 loss at Butler. But wins over Marquette and Xavier vaulted the Wildcats over the Kansas Jayhawks and back into the top spot.

Led by four 3s from Jenkins, the Wildcats set a school record 47 straight wins at the Pavilion. Under coach Jay Wright, Villanova has been nearly unbeatable at home for most of the last 10 years.

Seton Hall (12-6, 2-4) was just the latest to go down in front of the 177th straight sellout crowd. Villanova’s rare blemish on its national championship season was losing to the Pirates in the Big East Tournament title game.