I am starting to feel the nervousness as the Cats are about to tip off in the most prolific series in NCAA Tournament history with the Marquette Golden Eagles Thursday at 2:30 pm. The Cats have flown across the country to go to Anaheim to play against the boys from Wisconsin and now have in front of them a mission…continue the amazing 16 year run of First Round victories by the Kentucky program. In many ways, this game and this tournament are much different than the tournaments in previous years as the mere entry by the Wildcats seems like quite an accomplishment. Whereas the first round games in years past was almost a “hold your breath” type game that the Cats simply had to get out of in order to reach their goals, today’s game is much more. This is a game for Kentucky to show how far they have come and to provide a reward for two Seniors who have given their all to a program. Over the last year Smooth and Joe C have become loved by the Kentucky fanbase and a win today would be something that would be special for both of them.
As for the game itself, it is more than winnable. Marquette comes to the table with strengths in the exact areas that Kentucky also finds its strengths. Marquette is a great penetrating team from the perimeter…their guards like to take it to the basket, draw contact or dish out for a three pointer. Kentucky has shown an ability to stop guards from getting to the rim, especially since Ramon Harris has emerged as such a defensive threat. On offense, Kentucky (like Marquette) loves to put the ball in their guards’ hands and let them create off the dribble as well. In many ways these two teams are mirror images of each other on offense, with Marquette showing a little better ability to get points from secondary players, while Kentucky has two star scorers to Marquette’s one.
On the interior, both teams struggle quite a bit. Marquette has three big men that rotate in and out, but only provide points sporadically. Thus it may be the case that the ability of Perry Stevenson to score becomes crucial as the game goes along. Marquette has shown itself vulnerable to points in the paint, as showcased by their two bad defeats to Louisville this year. If Perry can come up with ten points and get some offensive rebounds, Kentucky will be in great shape. But even more important than scoring, Stevenson MUST stay out of foul trouble. Kentucky needs big minutes from him and must use AJ Stewart in spot duty, not for significant periods throughout the game. Marquette plays smart, hard-nosed basketball and the Cats need to have their players with the highest basketball IQ in as much as possible.
I see this game as being as close to a toss-up as any in the First Round. I think Marquette is slightly overrated, thanks in part to their relatively weak non-conference schedule and their ability to steal a couple of games towards the end of the year. Similarly, I think the Cats are a bit underseeded and are a #11 primarily because of losses that happened so long ago that they were almost taken by a different team. This strikes me as more of an 8-9 matchup, where either team can win and you just go with your gut feeling in making a prediction. I will predict the score on the game thread, but what is KEY for the Cats is to capitalize on their chances when they come. I dont think they can afford another 8 point hole early in the game, because unlike Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, Marquette plays smart at ALL times and may not let you back in the game. The Cats must come out swinging from the get go and use their runs to put a cushion on the Golden Eagles.
This will be a war in Anaheim and likely will be an ugly game. Once again, the Cats need 65 points to win. Ramel and Joe likely need to combine for 45-50, with Jasper and Stevenson combining for 12-15, Harris getting 5-6 and Coury/Stewart/Porter giving 2-5. Make that happen and the Cats move on. Either way, I hope you are off work and can enjoy the festivities today….it will be fun.
We will have game threads through the day and post-game coverage after the game. Until then, a quick tidbit from Larry Vaught who has been posting great tidbits on Kentucky Sports Report. As you may remember, a bunch of the players went and saw Darius Miller play in his regional championship game early last week. Vaught spoke to Ramon Harris, who said that the idea to go to the game came from Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford and that he and the other players wanted to support Darius because he was now “part of our family” as a UK player. Great story from Larry, sentiment from Ramon and example of why this team has come so far this season. Until later…