Kentucky basketball looks to find its identity and playmakers in a must-win game against Notre Dame.
Tucked away in the Kentucky basketball schedule this season is a game with a storied history that disappeared off the schedule but arguably may be the biggest of this year.
When Kentucky and Notre Dame tip-off at Noon in Rupp Arena on Saturday the end result may determine the post-season fate of the Wildcats even just five games in.
Both teams sit with just one win each against teams they should have beaten. Kentucky (1-3) defeated Morehead State and the Irish (1-2) downed Detroit Mercy – Brad Calipari‘s team.
The only strong power team in the Southeastern Conference this season would appear to be No. 12 Tennessee and out of the conference No. 13 Texas and No. 25 Louisville. Although coach John Calipari may dispute that.
With Kentucky in full Camp Cal mode practicing three times a day that commenced after the ugly loss to Georgia Tech and preceded by horrendous stumbles to Richmond and Kansas its time to shape and find this teams identity,
Kentucky coach John Calipari made it clear on his Twitter just what the focus would be on.
We start our yearly in-season camp tomorrow morning and we will be focusing on two things – TOUGHNESS and TURNOVERS – for three sessions every day.
We cannot play for 30 minutes. We need 40 minutes of fight.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) December 7, 2020
The Irish have fallen to ACC foes Michigan State and Ohio State.
Fans along with Calipari continue to scratch their heads just trying to figure out what the upside of this team is. Can he put the pieces together like he traditionally does come March or do the pieces just not fit?
The talent is definitely there and the pedigree they came to Lexington with proves it. It may just take longer with this squad.
But can the Wildcats psyche handle a four-game skid this early in the year should they fall to the Irish?
That might be a lot to build back up for kids that aren’t accustomed to losing.
Notre Dame provides a great opportunity to boost that confidence and its unfortunate 20,000 fans in Rupp aren’t there to embrace and encourage them.
This is a game that dates back decades and used to be a yearly December matchup in Freedom Hall in Louisville. If you didn’t have tickets that didn’t matter because coach Joe B. Hall would host open shootarounds in preparation that were free and open to the public drawing 8,000-10,000 people back in the 1970-80s.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 43-19 including a classic 68-65 win in the 2015 Midwest Regional Championship in Cleveland where the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 and the Irish No. 8. The winning formula for that win and drive to the final four was the defensive play of Willie Cauley-Stein and clutch performances down the stretch by the Harrison twins Aaron and Andrew.
Maybe Calipari should show this year’s team video of that hunger and desire to win.
This was the last time these two teams met and have agreed to a 3-game series beginning with this year in Rupp Arena, Madison Square Garden in 2021, and South Bend in 2022.
The two have tangled in Rupp Arena just eight times with Kentucky getting the win each time.
Kentucky is struggling to find its identity, shooting, a point guard, and presence in the paint with a roster that has zero experience.
Notre Dame is a veteran squad but hampered by injuries leaving just seven scholarship players.
So what exactly will give in this game and who will figure out the way to win.
Who will run the point for Kentucky? That has been Devin Askew but he is struggling mightily to adapt to the college game averaging 6.0 points a game but has just eight assists combined with 13 turnovers.
Some suggest moving Terrence Clarke over but then you lose his outside shooting and he also has 13 turnovers.
The safer bet would be veteran and Creighton graduate transfer, Davion Mintz, to bring stability but he has drawn the ire from Calipari many times. Yet he has just seven turnovers to go with 13 assists and a team-leading five steals.
Post-play will be important and finding someone to take up space in the paint. That seems to fall on Isaiah Jackson. 7.8 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, and 13 blocks on the year. Olivier Sarr was supposed to make a big impact but foul trouble has him more on the bench than on the floor it seems like.
Brandon Boston appeared to finally make his presence felt against Georgia Tech and here is hoping that was his coming-out party. Notre Dame will provide the stage to build upon that.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is still trying to find replacements for their top scores last year in John Mooney and TJ Gibbs.
Notre Dame coach Mike Bray appears to have found his leader in point guard Prentiss Hubb who is averaging 22.3 points, five rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game this season.
After Notre Dame’s 90-85 loss to Ohio State Prentiss said he’s the leader for the Irish.
“I’m the leader of the team. Coach Brey relies on me a lot. Being the vocal leader, it always falls back on the point guard regardless of what happens. I could have done a lot of things better. I’m going to take the responsibility for my team.”
Kentucky needs to find someone to aspire to the same mentality as Prentiss and take the team on their shoulders.
Down on the block, the Irish would appear to have the advantage with 6-10 junior forward Nate Laszewski who leads in rebounds with 9.7 boards per game and 15 points. Joining Laszewski in the paint is 6-11 senior Juwan Durham with 7.7 points per game and 7.6 rebounds.
Should either get in foul trouble the Irish have to go to their freshman bench in Tony Sanders Jr. or Mike Zona neither of which gets much playing time. That would force Bray to go to a smaller guard-oriented lineup.
This edge-on depth could play a big factor where Kentucky can go deep while the Irish have very little. Kentucky must pressure, create turnovers that result in baskets while drastically cutting down their miscues.
Kentucky can ill afford to go through scoring droughts or try and fight their way back against the Irish who play much better in the second half of games than the Wildcats.
Side by Side:
Notre Dame Kentucky
77.6 Points 67.2
35.0 1st Half 34.7
42.6 2nd Half 32.5
44.0 Field Goal % 43.0
44.1 3-point % 25.7
10.0 3’s made 4.25
77.3 Free Throw % 69.2
37.6 Rebounds 40.5
15.6 Assists 11.7
10.3 Turnovers 18.2
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1-2) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (1-3)
Game Time: 12:00 pm EST on Dec. 12, 2020.
Site: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Network: CBS
Radio: The voice of the Cats Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the call on the UK Sports Network.
Odds: KenPom gives Kentucky a 77% chance to win. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 59.5% chance of victory.
History: Kentucky leads the all-time series 43-19
Last Meeting: March 23, 2018, Kentucky won 68-65