Observations: Plenty at stake when Kentucky hosts Louisville

Both Kentucky and Louisville have a lot to prove on Saturday.

Arguably the best rivalry in college basketball doesn’t need any extra fodder, but that’s just what we’re going to have on Saturday when the Wildcats host the Cardinals at noon, ET at Rupp Arena (CBS and CBSSports.com).

Anytime John Calipari and Rick Pitino coach against each other you’re going to have enough story lines to get through a month.

However due to the specific timing of this game there’s also a lot of internal questions that need to be answered within these two respective programs.

Kentucky is coming off a loss against Ohio State last Saturday where it was dominated for the better part of 40 minutes against a team that up to that point had struggled.

The Wildcats also still need to find a way to get something out of freshman big man Skal Labissiere, who is averaging just 4.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over his last five games.

Louisville meanwhile is trying to build confidence by beating a good team on the road before beginning ACC play.

The Cardinals are 11-1 heading into tomorrow’s game in Lexington, but have only dealt with legitimate competition when they fell by four at Michigan State in early December.

SMU’s Shake Milton is one of America’s least appreciated freshmen: Many people in college basketball are curious to know who’s going to anchor the Ponies’ back court when Nic Moore graduates following this season.

The answer to that question is simple — Milton.

The silky smooth freshman guard has earned Larry Brown’s trust just over 10 games into his college career and was on the floor in crunch time on Wednesday night when SMU beat Colorado in the finals of the Las Vegas Classic.

Milton finished the game with 14 points and five rebounds while logging 30 minutes.

The most impressive thing about this kid’s game?

How efficient he is offensively.

The 6-5 guard is averaging 10.7 points while shooting 55.8 percent, 45.5 percent from 3-point range and 77.3 percent from the foul line.

Look for more and more people to take notice of this kid as the season progresses.

He’ll be a national name by February — at the latest.

Tommy Amaker does his best work with his back against the wall: The former Duke point guard has made Harvard into a mid-major power by taking the Crimson to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but some of the most impressive coaching jobs of his career may have come when he’s been shorthanded.

In 2013 Amaker led Harvard to the field of 68’s Round of 32 after losing two starters — Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey — who had to withdraw from school prior to the season.

That run included a win over red-hot New Mexico and it reiterated that Amaker was indeed a coach in addition to a recruiter.

Now he’s doing the same thing again.

Harvard has become the perennial favorite in the Ivy League, but a preseason ACL injury to starting point guard Siyani Chambers made many people believe that Crimson had fallen back to the rest of the pack.

That theme may have changed after the past couple of days in Hawaii.

Playing with the confidence of Barack Obama at a public speaking engagement in Chicago, Harvard has won back-to-back games in the Diamond Head Classic against BYU and Auburn setting up a huge showdown against No. 3 Oklahoma Friday in the tournament finals.

Amaker has assembled an elite recruiting class for next season to couple with Chambers’ return to the lineup and everyone in the Ivy League assumed this was a “bridge year” for the Crimson.

Many people in the conference are now questioning that assumption.

Why has the perception around Harvard changed so much in last 48 hours?

It’s real simple: coaching.

Kentucky Wildcats (USATSI)
Kentucky is coming off a loss to Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic. (USATSI)

This and That

USC is quietly off to an 11-2 start in Andy Enfield’s third season with the Trojans. This team has six players averaging in double-figures and is averaging 83.0 points. It remains to be seen how USC responds to adversity in conference play, but early indications are this team should play in some sort of postseason tournament.

After starting 4-3 through its first seven games, NC State won six straight games. Mark Gottfried’s teams always have a way of getting better as the season progresses and also always possess Sweet 16 level talent. Remember: the Wolfpack have yet to have West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson in the lineup due to an injury and should get him back sometime in January. A 6-5 wing, Henderson averaged 11.7 points two years ago for the Mountaineers and should be a starter for NC State when he gets healthy.

Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins has made great strides in the past few weeks taking care of the ball. The red shirt freshman has had 15 assists and just two turnovers in the Bulldogs’ last four games. Perkins has logged a total of 100 minutes during that span.

Pitt has a real chance to make a move in January. Jamie Dixon’s team is currently 10-1 overall and only has one team that’s currently ranked — Louisville — on its schedule before early February. The door is open for the Panthers.

Harvard freshman Corey Johnson is one of the best shooters in the country. The 6-5 wing has made 14 3-point shots in his last three games and is shooting 41.8 percent from long distance. Another Laurent Rivard? You better believe it. Johnson is averaging 10.0 points and has already made 33 3-point shots this season.

Illinois big man Michael Finke has been a bright spot in a tough start to the season for the Illini. The red shirt freshman has scored in double-figures in four of his last five games and is averaging 10.3 points and 3.1 rebounds this season. The interesting thing about the 6-10 Finke? His ability to step outside and extend the defense. Finke has already made 16 3-point shots this season.

Not many head coaches have had a tougher start to the season than Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley. The Rams were picked by many people to win the Atlantic 10, but now have two all-conference players — E.C. Matthews (knee) and Hassan Martin (ankle) — out indefinitely. Matthews will miss the entire season while Martin is likely out for the next few weeks. This is epitome of brutality. Rhode Island is currently 7-5.

Mississippi State’s I.J. Ready has handed out 15 assists and zero turnovers over his last two games. Why is this so big for the Bulldogs? In order for Mississippi State to have a chance in the SEC, it needs Malik Newman to be off the ball and there’s a better chance of that happening if Ready is playing at a high level as a pass-first point guard. Ben Howland’s squad is 6-5 overall.

Georgia Tech has quietly made major offensive strides compared to the way it was performing last season. Last season the Yellow Jackets shot 40.8 percent, 64.8 percent from the foul line, and 26.7 from 3-point range. This year Brian Gregory’s team is shooting 46.4 percent, 71.3 percent from the foul line, and 35.3 from long distance. Georgia Tech is currently 9-3 overall.

How good is the Big 12 from top to bottom? The 10 teams in this league currently have a combined record of 89-15. That’s darn impressive.

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