Editor's note: Kentucky and Louisville are ready for an epic battle in the Final Four. But before they get started, Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf discuss the rivalry, the matchup and the coaches.
Myron Medcalf: Eamonn, I'm ready for this Watercooler now that I have my beads for New Orleans. What an epic Final Four … potentially. Question: Will the state of Kentucky explode Saturday? I mean, it's time for the citizens of that state to stock up on water, canned goods and batteries, right? No telling what will happen after Louisville-Kentucky …
Eamonn Brennan: It will be impossible for the state to explode, because I'm pretty sure literally every Commonwealth citizen with a driver's license will be on Bourbon Street on Saturday. This both terrifies and excites me. One thing's for sure: It's going to be a fantastic atmosphere for a game -- and it provides storylines and a coaching rivalry that couldn't have lined up better if the basketball gods had deigned it themselves. I'm stoked.
EB: The only problem, of course, is whether the game can live up to the lead-in. I have promised myself I won't be disappointed, no matter what. But that might be a lofty promise. I think Louisville has a chance, sure … but it's a slim one.
MM: I agree. The buildup will be nuts. Pitino versus Calipari. In-state rivals. … But at some point, we have to look at this game on paper. I admire Louisville's man-to-man D. Dominating in the NCAA tournament thus far. But this is a special Kentucky team. Better than the team that beat Louisville by seven points in December. Indiana scored 90 points (in the Sweet 16) -- and lost by 12. It seems that everything opponents try, Kentucky can top it. Louisville has a chance. Baylor had a chance. Indiana had a chance. Iowa State had a chance. Not sure that will be enough Saturday. How can Louisville beat Kentucky?
EB: Well, it should be noted that this Louisville team boasts the best defense Kentucky has faced in the tournament, and maybe all season. It, too, has improved by leaps and bounds since the first meeting, and even since the Big East tournament. Indiana and Baylor and Iowa State all had talent, and Indiana had an elite offense all season, so Tom Crean decided, Hey, we can't stop them, there's no chance, let's get out and run and see if we can make something happen. And it did, but Kentucky was just too good on the other end of the floor. C'est la vie.
EB: That won't be the case for Louisville. I think it has one key trait that makes it a credible threat to the Wildcats: versatile defense. On Thursday, I saw Michigan State stumped by the Cardinals' zone, and by the pressure, and by a general weakening throughout the game as Louisville's conditioning dialed up the heat in the second half. On Saturday, I saw it open up in that same zone, realize it wasn't working, switch to man-to-man (or as my favorite human being Bill Raftery spells it, "mandaman" and totally throw Florida out of whack. It was a really impressive display. That versatility means Rick Pitino will be able to pick his defensive game plan and go with it, knowing his players will at least be capable of executing whatever he comes up with.
EB: So Louisville has that going for it … which is nice.
MM: True. Louisville has been the top defensive team in the field. And the Cardinals have shown a lot of heart. They were baffled by the Gators, and then they adjusted and turned the game. They also have familiarity on their side. Looking at the way the Wildcats have crushed teams in the NCAA tournament, holding Kentucky to 69 points in December seems like a noteworthy accomplishment. But Louisville is playing a team that has recognized its potential and has the swagger to match it. To me, Louisville has to send a message in the post early. That's why Gorgui Dieng is the most important player in this matchup, in my opinion. Can Louisville win without a monster performance from the big man?
EB: No, I think you're right: Dieng is their most important player in this game, and probably in general, simply because he brings an interior defensive presence to match what the Cardinals do to guards out on the perimeter. Without him, Chane Behanan and Jared Swopshire have to man the middle, and as good as Behanan has been (and he will have to be legitimately great against Kentucky), neither of them can replace Dieng's rebounding and shot-blocking. Plus, there's this dude named Anthony Davis, and he's really good at basketball and happens to play the same position as Dieng. Some measure of competitive balance in that matchup is an absolute must.
MM: Exactly. Davis will impact the game. Louisville needs Dieng to offer a similar level of intimidation on the other end of the floor. But you mentioned a guy who's probably No. 2 on Louisville's most important player list. Which Chane Behanan will show up? Quincy Acy had some success against Kentucky. And Behanan is bigger and stronger. He's had moments in the NCAA tournament that made you think, "Wow, kid could be a star." Other times this season, he's looked like a solid freshman. Nothing more. His bulk could be an X factor, too. But it seems we're searching for ways/reasons/theories for Louisville to topple Kentucky. And as much as this is about the guys on the floor, this is also about the personalities, uh, coaches on the sidelines. Who would you rather have leading your team in the Final Four, Calipari or Pitino?
EB: I think you have to go with Pitino, if only because he's been there six times and taken home a title, something Calipari hasn't yet accomplished. To me, it's not a knock on Calipari to say Pitino is a better game coach -- he's a better game coach than just about anyone in the sport, save Coach K. The knocks on Calipari's X's and O's ability are overblown at this point, no question. But Pitino is a Hall of Famer, a master in many ways. I'd take him. But I'll take Kentucky's lineup -- and Calipari's direction of it -- any day. And twice on Saturday.
MM: I'm with you. Calipari is the one facing the bulk of the pressure. Pitino could retire now. A legend. No arguments against it. He's just putting icing on his career at this point. Calipari needs this win, this title. To lose to a Kentucky legend like Pitino at this stage would be a crushing blow to his legacy, especially considering the team that he has right now. Kentucky should win the national title. We will be shocked if the Wildcats lose. One scenario, involving a Kentucky loss, really intrigues me. We just watched North Carolina crumble without Kendall Marshall. Marquis Teague had four turnovers against Baylor. Louisville will apply twice the perimeter pressure. The freshman point guard, who's been questioned all season, has to be more than a distributor in New Orleans. His ballhandling could protect or ruin Kentucky's title hopes. Do you trust Teague to get the job done for the Wildcats?
EB: I think he can handle it, and I think Calipari will spend much of this week figuring out a plan, so that whatever pressure Louisville brings can be equally distributed up the floor. That's easier said than done. I also think Calipari will be eager, as he was for much of the latter part of the season -- when Teague's turnover levels markedly dropped -- to slow the game down and keep it a half-court affair. The Cardinals will be eager to speed it up. Pitino has used his pressure in fits and starts in the tournament thus far; I'd be fascinated to see whether he just decides to go all-out with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith on the ball at 94 feet. A little mid-'90s UK pressure style, perhaps?
MM: I wouldn't put anything past Pitino. So many defensive options. And I agree, Teague has proved himself. But as you've noted, the significance of that position seems to grow with each stage. If Siva and Smith attack early, how will the young guard respond? Key question for this matchup. But it's worth recognizing that Kentucky is a very good defensive unit, too. Louisville finished the Florida win on a 23-8 run. It seems highly unlikely to rally that way against Kentucky. The bottom line is that I'm pumped to see this. Kentucky seems unbeatable, but Louisville's D is so tough. Pitino won't go down without a fight against Calipari, and there's state pride on the line. And we'll be courtside.
EB: Let's invent a time machine so we can go do this right now. We'll just swoop in right before the game. I don't want to wait.
I'm not sure who writes our assigned stuff the next few days … but that's a minor detail. We'll figure it out.
MM: Very minor detail. We have to get to New Orleans. Now.