3-Point Shot (plus one): Battle of the Bluegrass Preview

By Josh Ellis

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No. 12 UK (9-2) v. No. 16 Louisville (11-1)

Tipoff: Saturday, Noon, Rupp Arena TV: CBS Radio: UK Radio Network

Three points of emphasis (plus one) for Saturday’s Battle of the Bluegrass between UK and U of L.

Louisville frontcourt shorthanded

U of L will have to rely on freshman Raymond Spalding and sophomore Chinanu Onuaku to play the majority of its frontcourt minutes on Saturday, as fellow center Mangok Mathiang suffered a broken left foot on Dec. 19 against Western Kentucky and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks.

Along with Mathiang, Deng Adel and Anas Mahmoud are also recovering from injuries, but have each returned for at least one of UL’s last two games. The two average a combined six points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and neither played more than 15 minutes in their first game back. Sophomore Jaylen Johnson will likely be the Cardinals’ third and only option off the bench, as he alone should give more production than Adel and Mahmoud.

With a shorthanded U of L frontcourt, UK forwards Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and company will need to stay aggressive and win the rebounding battle on the offensive and defensive ends if UK wants its eighth win in the last nine meetings against the Cards. Lee feels another physical frontcourt can only help the Cats build toward March.

“I think it’s a great thing that we’re playing a lot of different bigs throughout our beginning season,” Lee said. “It shows how our bigs are able to change up and play differently and that’s what we’re really trying to show.”

Jamal Murray shooting

UK’s leading scorer Jamal Murray nearly led the Cats back from a 16-point deficit against Ohio State, but his 33-point performance fell just short of guiding UK to its 10th win of the season. Murray has been the Cats’ leading scorer in five of the team’s 11 games, and the freshman takes 13.6 shots per game – a number that could jump up to 20 on Saturday.

“He’s had the bright green light. He really has,” head coach John Calipari said. “I just would rather not see a lefty runner from the foul line. My thing is you’ve got to have discipline in this, which means no one is telling you, ever, not to shoot. But then you’ve got to work hard to get great shots and if you’re covered you’re just not going to take a bad one because you have the green light.”

Giving Murray the green light is a smart move by Calipari, considering Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe have combined to shoot 41 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. Until the other guards (or forwards for that matter) have developed a steady scoring ability, Murray will be the primary option for UK’s offense – and that means giving him as many shots as he needs.

Dose of Damion Lee

Another ingredient for a U of L victory, besides winning the battle on the boards, would be incorporating Drexel transfer Damion Lee into the offensive rhythm – which Rick Pitino will do without a doubt. Lee doesn’t have to score 30 against the Cats (which he’s capable of doing), but shouldn’t count on Trey Lewis or Quentin Snider to carry the load.

“(Lee) is a catch-and-shoot guy, but he’s doing more than that right now,” Calipari said. “He has some size and they can throw him in the post when they need to. He’s done some good stuff.”

Calipari knows the Cardinals have a solid backcourt of its own in Lee, Lewis and Snider, so it will be interesting to see how he matches up defensively – especially on the 6-foot-6 Lee. Maybe he puts Briscoe, who he says can be the best defender in the country, on Lee? Looks like we’ll just have to wait and see.

Additional Info (Plus one)

  • UK has won the previous three meetings
  • The Cats have only lost back-to-back games six times in the Calipari era (four of those back-to-back loses came in 2012-2013)
  • UK is 7-1 vs. U of L in the Calipari era
  • Calipari is one win shy of reaching 200 wins as UK head coach
  • U of L leads the nation in scoring margin (+30.2), is second in rebounding margin (+14.9) and scoring defense (55.9), and is fifth in field goal percentage defense (.352)