Inside College Hoops: This weekend is all about Louisville at Kentucky

The problem with Christmas falling on a Friday — or a Saturday or a Sunday — is that it really screws up the weekend as it pertains to college basketball. Put another way, there’s not much going on. So we have a light schedule on our hands with only one game Saturday.

Just one.

But it’s a good one.

It’s Louisville at Kentucky, Rick Pitino against John Calipari, Big Blue Nation vs. the program that dealt with more negative offseason headlines than any other in recent memory thanks to what’s commonly referenced as Louisville’s Stripper Scandal. By now, you know the story. The allegations are ugly. The NCAA is investigating. It could end badly for the Cards.

Either way, it’ll have no bearing on Saturday’s showdown.

And Calipari said he hopes UK fans keep it civil.

“Let’s just play basketball,” Calipari told reporters earlier this week. “We don’t need to relish in anybody’s struggles. … Let’s just have some class.”

Whether things go down that way remains to be seen.

Either way, tip-off is at noon ET.

You can watch it live on CBS or online at this link.

Marcus Lee (USATSI)
Kentucky’s Marcus Lee dunks in the Wildcats’ 58-50 victory vs. Louisville last season. (USATSI)

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BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: I don’t know that many people, if any people, thought Louisville would be, statistically speaking, the best team in the state of Kentucky. But, according to KenPom, that’s exactly what the Cardinals are. Louisville is 11-1 with 11 wins by at least 20 points and a lone loss at top-ranked Michigan State. And though the Cardinals haven’t beaten even one quality opponent, they’ve performed well enough against lackluster competition to move to sixth in KenPom’s ratings. Meantime, Kentucky is 12th at KenPom. And the best indication that Louisville is, right now, considered the better team is that UK is only a 2.5-point favorite Saturday despite having homecourt advantage.

NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: There really isn’t a next best game, to be honest. So let’s stick with Louisville-Kentucky. This is the first outing for the Wildcats since they lost to an Ohio State team that had previously taken five losses, including home losses to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. So it’ll be interesting to see how Kentucky responds because, though UK has accomplished more than Louisville in terms of quality wins, the Wildcats haven’t accomplished much. They’re 1-2 against top-50 KenPom teams with two losses to schools that are not currently ranked in the AP poll. So the Wildcats need to avoid a loss here or else folks will start to wonder whether this season is going to be more like Nerlens Noel’s only year of college than anybody would’ve predicted in the preseason.

NEXT-NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Again, it’s slim pickings. But if you’re wondering whether any other ranked teams are playing this weekend, the answer is yes. Fourth-ranked Maryland hosts Marshall on Sunday at the Xfinity Center. Georgia Tech transfer Rober Carter enters as Maryland’s second-leading scorer (12.5 points) and top rebounder (6.5 rebounds). He should feast on the Thundering Herd, if only because Marshall is among the nation’s worst rebounding teams.

FUN GAME BETWEEN TWO UNRANKED TEAMS: I can’t, with a straight face, tell you it’s a “fun” game. But Marquette’s Henry Ellenson is fun, and by fun I mean terrific. The 6-foot-10 freshman is averaging 16.7 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Golden Eagles, who have won eight straight games. They host Presbyterian on Sunday.

ONE PLAYER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: OK, let’s turn our attention back to Louisville-Kentucky, specificially UK freshman Jamal Murray. He was splendid last weekend against Ohio State. Made seven 3-pointers. Finished with 33 points. Shot the Wildcats back into striking range after they were down 16 in the second half. But what UK’s coaches want to know is whether he can shoot the Wildcats to a 16-point lead rather than score a bunch when they’re already down 16. Can Murray be a dominant difference-maker from the tip? That’s something worth watching Saturday and throughout the rest of this season.

FIVE THINGS WORTH NOTING

1. One thing the nation’s top three scorers have in common is that they’re all small guards. You should know about Kay Felder by now, after my column earlier this week that was followed by his 37-point performance against top-ranked Michigan State. The 5-foot-9 guard is averaging 26.9 points, which ranks second nationally. Just above him is Howard’s James Daniel, a 5-11 guard who is averaging 28.4 points. And just below Felder is Dayton’s Jack Gibbs, a 6-0 guard who is averaging 26.6 points.

2. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is leading the Power 5 conferences in scoring, case you didn’t know. He’s averaging 24.0 points and shooting 52.3 percent from 3-point range for a team that’s undefeated and ranked third in the AP poll. That’s among the reasons he’s a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate.

3. Speaking of National POY candidates, Matt Norlander put together a list of 11 candidates earlier this week, and Hield and Felder were both on it. It’s a solid list. But one glaring omission, I think, is North Carolina’s Brice Johnson. The 6-9 forward is averaging a team-high 16.3 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds for a school that’s ranked seventh in the AP poll and in possession of wins over Maryland and UCLA. That’s strong and the type of numbers that should have Johnson on anybody’s Player of the Year list.

4. Another questionable omission from that POY list is Providence’s Ben Bentil, who has been surprisingly great. The 6-9 forward is averaging a team-high 18.8 points and a team-high 8.0 rebounds for a school that’s ranked 10th in the AP poll and in possession of a win over Arizona. I’m assuming Norlander was hesitant to include two Providence players. But, in my opinion, Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil both deserve recognition.

5. As is the case with any defined list, you can’t just add players without removing some. So if the question is which two players I’d remove to add Johnson and Bentil, I suppose the answer is … I don’t know … Purdue’s A.J. Hammons and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II. But I wouldn’t feel good about it. So, now that I’m thinking about it, the list should’ve just been pushed to 15, added Johnson, Bentil and two more players — perhaps Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett and Louisville’s Damion Lee. That would make a nice list of 15, I think.

FINAL THOUGHT: We discussed it a little on the Eye on College Basketball podcast earlier this week, and I realize not everybody agrees, but I really do believe Kentucky-Louisville is, at this moment, the best rivalry in all of college basketball.

Duke-North Carolina is tops historically, no question.

But the Calipari-Pitino dynamic pushes Kentucky-Louisville to the top.

Two Hall of Fame coaches with lots of history — and one of them (Pitino) had the the UK job before the other (Calipari) got the UK job. The fans absolutely hate each other. The coaches are publicly cool but far from buddies. So give me Kentucky-Louisville over everything else.

Again, tip-off is Saturday at noon ET.

Should be great.

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