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.
Bowen, a consensus top-20 recruit, is a 6-foot-8 small forward out of Sagniaw, Mich., but he currently is attending the prestigious La Lumiere School in Indiana. He’s also the cousin of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson, leaving many to believe that he’s a heavy Spartan lean.
“People think I’m 100 percent to Michigan State,” Bowen told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com earlier this month. “I love them to death and I’ve been there my whole life and everything — it’s a great coaching staff and everything — but I’m not 100 percent to a school until I commit there. Right now, I’m open to the schools that are recruiting.”
Bowen hasn’t said when he plans on making a final decision.
Indiana senior Collin Hartman underwent surgery to repair damage on his left knee, the school announced Wednesday.
The Hoosiers provided no timetable for Hartman’s return following a non-contact injury he suffered in practice last week.
“Any time you see one of your players go down to injury,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a statement, “it tears you up as a person and as a program — even more so when it’s someone like Collin Hartman, who has been a huge part of our success and is in his senior year. We all look forward to helping him recover and rehabilitate.”
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Hartman has been a role player for the Cyclones the last two seasons, averaging right around 20 minutes per game. He put up 5.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists last year as a junior.
The school hasn’t released the nature or severity of the Hartman’s injury, so it’s impossible to even guess when he might be able to suit up next for the Hoosiers, who are a likely top-15 team heading into the season.
Indiana opens the year in a big way on Nov. 11, facing off against Kansas in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu.
The upward trajectory of Virginia Tech basketball under Buzz Williams continued Wednesday.
Wabissa Bede, a Class of 2017 point guard, committed to the Hokies to give them their second top-100 player in the class.
The 6-foot-1 Massachusetts native choice Virginia Tech after taking official visits to both Blacksburg and Butler with UMass and LaSalle also in the mix. He’s ranked 77th in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“Wabissa Bede is a rugged guard who helps his team win games by defending and playing smart basketball,” NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips said. “He can stand to improve his perimeter jumper, but he has a high IQ and can make plays for others as a passer.
“Bede is a perfect Buzz Williams fit.”
Williams is developing quite the backcourt in this class with top-50 shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker already committed to the Hokies.
It’s becoming a good time to be a Virginia Tech basketball fan after a couple of lean years to start the Williams era. The Hokies are a likely top-25 team and expected to end a 10-year NCAA drought this season with Seth Allen and Zach LeDay returning.
With the improvement of the on-court product and the recruiting successes, Virginia Tech certainly looks like a program on the rise.
VIDEO: The dorm for Kansas basketball players is ridiculous
Transfers have become a controversial topic in college basketball, with a record number of players seeking new teams every offseason. Graduate transfers and the more traditional variety that forces players to sit a season before playing are now both a huge part of roster construction and many of the best programs in the country are turning to transfers every offseason to help give them a boost.
With so many new faces in new places, here’s a look at some impact players that will be playing for a new program this season. Some of these players are good enough to make our NBCSports.com Preseason All-American Team while others could be that extra spark off the bench that comes up big in March.
1. Austin Nichols, Virginia (via Memphis): The Cavaliers are trying to replace Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill and getting Nichols is going to be huge in that equation. After sitting out a season, Nichols will be asked to anchor Virginia’s famous pack-line defense and he’ll be equipped to do so after being third in the nation in blocks (3.4 a game) as a sophomore at Memphis. But Nichols can also score and rebound and he could be in for a monster season. NBCSports.com has faith that Nichols will be a huge impact for the ‘Hoos as he sits as a second-team Preseason All-American.
2. Nigel Williams-Goss, Jonathan Williams and Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga(via Washington, Missouri and Cal): Gonzaga utilized transfers as well as any team in the country to help build its roster this season as they get Williams-Goss and Williams coming off of a season of sitting out while Mathews can come in and provide another perimeter scorer right away. Williams should be a frontcourt impact for the Zags, but it’s Williams-Goss and his all-around efforts at lead guard that could net him All-American honors with a strong season. All three are hoping to lift Gonzaga to its first ever Final Four.
3. Marcus Foster, Creighton (via Kansas State): We saw two different versions of Marcus Foster during his two seasons at Kansas State and the Bluejays are hoping for the version that tore up the Big 12 as one of the premier freshmen in the country. After sitting out last season, Foster will be paired with talented point guard Mo Watson Jr. to form one of the nation’s best backcourts. Good luck defending both of these guys if they get rolling. Also with the potential to be a great defender, Foster could be an All-Big East selection if he returns to his freshman form.
4. Kyle Washington, Cincinnati (via N.C. State): With a lot of starts under his belt in the ACC, Washington should make an immediate impact for the Bearcats in replacing Octavius Ellis. With two more years of eligibility, Washington could be a huge boost to Cincinnati’s interior efforts as he can protect the rim a bit while also rebounding and scoring in the post. This summer among the college counselors at the Under Armour All-American Camp, Washington was one of the better players on the floor, so it’ll be interesting to see if that translates to success at his new school.
5. Andrew White, Syracuse (via Nebraska): One of the latest to commit as a graduate transfer this offseason, White gives the Orange a proven wing scorer who should be able to step in and help offset some of the loss of Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije. White isn’t the playmaker that Gbinije was, but he gives Jim Boeheim’s offense a double-figure scorer who could be valuable near the end of a possession if they’re looking for something from the perimeter.
6. Manu Lecomte, Baylor (via Miami): The Bears get a perimeter threat in Lecomte as he shot 45.8 percent from three-point range as a sophomore. Potentially taking the reigns at lead guard, Lecomte could be one of Baylor’s most important players this season.
7. Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett, Ole Miss (via New Mexico and Miami): Playing for his father at New Mexico didn’t work out and Neal’s three-point ability should fit in nicely in Ole Miss’ free-flowing offense. Burnett has a chance to be a major contributor as a scorer to help offset the loss of Stefan Moody.
8. Josh Newkirk, Indiana(via Pittsburgh): With the loss of point guard Yogi Ferrell, Newkirk gives Indiana an experienced guard who can really push the pace in Tom Crean’s uptempo system.
9. Shaqquan Aaron, USC(via Louisville): There is no doubting the talent of the former top-50 prospect, but Aaron hasn’t played a full season in nearly two years. It will be interesting to see if he’s ready to start on the wing for a USC team that lost a lot of talented players.
10. Josh Cunningham, Dayton (via Bradley): The former four-star prospect could be a major contributor to the Flyers as he rebounds well and can also play multiple spots in the frontcourt thanks to some versatility.
11. Eric Paschall, Villanova(via Fordham): The former A-10 Rookie of the Year gives the defending national champs another talented forward this season as he’s a capable scorer who can also provide some help on the glass.
12. RaShid Gaston, Xavier (via Norfolk State): After sitting out a season, Gaston should help fill some of the production after James Farr and Jalen Reynolds both departed. Gaston averaged 15.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game two seasons ago and could see major minutes.
MORE NAMES TO KNOW
Spike Albrecht, Purdue(via Michigan): Health will be the major question for the former Michigan point guard — as he’s coming off of dual hip surgeries that all but eliminated his final season at Michigan — but he could provide Purdue with a steady lead guard that they’ve been craving.
Sedrick Barefield and David Collette, Utah (via SMU, Utah State): Another program experiencing a lot of roster turnover, the Utes could ask for major minutes from both of these guys when they’re eligible after first semester. Barefield could be a ball handler who helps Lorenzo Bonam in the backcourt while Collette is more proven than most on the roster in the frontcourt.
Canyon Barry, Florida(via Charleston): The son of Rick Barry gives the Gators an additional scorer as he had at least 20 points in seven of 13 games last season. You should also keep an eye out for Barry’s under-handed free throws, which he took from his father’s game.
Darrell Bowie and Merrill Holden, Iowa State(via Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech): Continuing in Fred Hoiberg’s tradition of bringing in talented transfers, Steve Prohm brought in two experienced and productive mid-major options who could receive major minutes.
Elijah Bryant and L.J. Rose, BYU(via Elon and Houston): With Dave Rose’s love of three-guard lineups, expect plenty of minutes from these two this season. Bryant was a major contributor for Elon as a freshman (14.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg) while Rose is an experienced guard who can play multiple spots.
Jordan Caroline, Leland King and Marcus Marshall, Nevada (via Southern Illinois, Brown and Missouri State). Head coach Eric Musselman took three talented transfers who are now eligible as King and Marshall are proven double-digit scorers and Caroline is a productive forward who can score and rebound.
Corban Collins and Nick King, Alabama(via Morehead State and Memphis): Returning to the SEC after starting his career at LSU, Collins could start at point guard for the Crimson Tide after making second-team All-OVC honors last season. King is a former top-100 prospect who can fill it up from the perimeter when he’s feeling it.
Junior Etou, Tulsa(via Rutgers): Tulsa’s roster is loaded with newcomers and the forward will be expected to contribute right away after showing solid production at Rutgers.
Shannon Evans, Arizona State (via Buffalo): Bobby Hurley gets his former Buffalo guard in the fold this season and Evans could start alongside Tra Holder to form a two-point guard lineup. Evans is a former second-team All-MAC selection who helped the Bulls to the NCAA tournament with Hurley as coach.
Davonte Fitzgerald, Reggie Lynch and Akeem Springs, Minnesota(via Texas A&M, Illinois State, Milwaukee): All three of these transfers have a chance for big minutes at Minnesota. Fitzgerald is a versatile wing, Lynch is a major shot blocker and rebounder down low and Springs is a double-figure scorer who is physical enough to handle the Big Ten.
Anton Gill, Nebraska(via Louisville): Tim Miles has done a great job with transfer guards and Gill is hoping to play a larger role after his time at Louisville. While sitting out last season, Gill proved in practice that he could be a major scorer for the Huskers this season.
L.G. Gill, Maryland(via Duquesne): Maryland was crushed by roster turnover and Gill gives them an experienced forward who can step in and provide some production on the glass and scoring inside.
Montaque Gill-Caesar, San DiegoState (via Missouri): Showing some promise at Mizzou, this former four-star recruit gives the Aztecs more lineup flexibility as he could force Steve Fisher to play more three-guard lineups. Gill-Caesar gives San Diego State a nice matchup problem.
John Gillon, Syracuse(via Colorado State): A tempo-pushing guard who can score, Gillon will be asked to help run some point for the Orange, but he’s most comfortable playing in attack mode and finding his own offense.
J.C. Hampton, Texas A&M (via Lipscomb): Texas A&M lost Anthony Collins and Alex Caruso and freshman J.J. Caldwell is ineligible this season so Hampton becomes a huge addition after earning All-Atlantic Sun honors last season. Hampton will push for minutes at point guard after putting up 15.4 ppg last season.
Tony Hicks, Louisville (via Penn): Louisville was successful with transfers last season and they’re hoping Hicks can be another boost. Although not as talented as Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, Hicks is a proven scorer who should be a key role player.
Que Johnson, Junior Lomomba, Pancake Thomas, Western Kentucky (via Washington State, Providence, Hartford): New head coach Rick Stansbury aggressively hit the transfer market and came away with two double-figure scorers in Johnson and Thomas and a rugged and experienced defender in Lomomba.
Christian Kessee, Memphis(via Coppin State): Memphis is looking for any kind of help they can find in the backcourt and Kessee averaged 14.6 points and shot 39.5 percent from three-point range last season. He should provide a floor spacer and could start at either guard spot.
Terry Larrier, UConn(via VCU): A talented and versatile wing forward, Larrier should be a nice frontcourt addition to the Huskies that gives them a scoring boost as he has a lot of upside to be a major contributor the next few seasons.
Anthony Livingston, Texas Tech(via Arkansas State): Chris Beard did a great job with transfers at Little Rock and Livingston gives the Red Raiders a talented offensive threat after he put up 15.5 points and 9.4 rebounds last season.
Shelton Mitchell, Marquise Reed and Elijah Thomas, Clemson(via Wake Forest, Robert Morris, Texas A&M): Clemson’s backcourt was shaky last season and Mitchell and Reed — the former NEC Rookie of the Year — should help. Thomas is eligible after first semester and he’ll give the Tigers a potential post scoring threat who can rebound.
Semi Ojeleye, SMU (via Duke): Never a huge part of the rotation at Duke, this former four-star forward could be asked to play a huge role in SMU’s frontcourt as Ojeleye will help replace Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert.
Rodney Pryor, Georgetown(via Robert Morris): One of the most productive low-major players in the country the last few seasons, Pryor gets to see how he fares in the Big East after putting up 18 points and 8 rebounds per game last season.
Katin Reinhardt and Andrew Rowsey, Marquette(via USC and UNC Asheville): Marquette struggled to hit perimeter shots last season and they’re hoping this duo provides them a major lift in that department. Reinhardt is a former top-100 prospect while Rowsey put up 19.7 points per game in two seasons at Asheville.
Alex Robinson, TCU (via Texas A&M): Jamie Dixon could count on this former four-star prospect to be a primary ball handler early as Robinson gives the Horned Frogs a steady lead guard to play with talented freshman Jaylen Fisher.
Stanford Robinson, Rhode Island(via Indiana): Things didn’t work out for the former top-100 prospect at Indiana but Robinson provides a valuable rotation piece for the Rams who play multiple spots on the floor. With star E.C. Matthews coming off an ACL injury, Robinson is huge from a depth perspective.
Kethan Savage, Butler (via George Washington): The athletic guard averaged double figures during his two seasons in D.C. but he’s coming off of shoulder surgery. Along with Memphis grad transfer Avery Woodson, Savage should help fill in for Roosevelt Jones.
Jaren Sina, George Washington (via Seton Hall): With plenty of Big East experience under his belt, Sina should help the Colonials as a playmaking guard who can score or distribute. If Sina’s perimeter shot becomes more consistent he could be a really nice pickup.
LaRon Smith, Auburn (via Bethune-Cookman): The addition of Smith boosts the Auburn frontcourt as he was sixth in the nation with 96 blocked shots last season. With talented forward Horace Spencer frequently getting in foul trouble, Smith could see a lot of minutes and might even be a starter.
Geno Thorpe, South Florida(via Penn State): Thorpe showed some scoring punch at Penn State and he gives the Bulls another perimeter weapon to help draw attention away from AAC All-Rookie selection Jahmal McMurray.
Keyshawn Woods, Wake Forest (via Charlotte): The Demon Deacons will get a perimeter boost with the addition of Woods as he shot 46.6 percent from three-point range as a freshman with the 49ers. Woods could start immediately this season.