Opposing philosophies collide in Thursday’s opening game of the 2012 SEC/Big East Challenge.
Kentucky and Notre Dame get set to square off in South Bend, where the Fighting Irish have won 40 of their last 41 games. Mike Brey’s team is 105-7 at the Joyce Center since the start of the 2006-07 season, trailing only three other schools in home winning percentage over that span. Kentucky is one of them.
Notre Dame (6-1) returns all five starters from last year’s team, which bounced back from a rough non-conference showing to unexpectedly win 13 games in the Big East. Kentucky (4-1) lost its top-six contributors from its national title team—all to the NBA—and will start three freshmen, a sophomore and a two-time transfer. Notre Dame sixth year senior Scott Martin has more college experience by himself than four-fifths of Kentucky’s customary starting lineup.
Noel vs. Cooley. No singular matchup in Thursday’s main event better epitomizes the philosophical difference between Kentucky and Notre Dame than the battle on the block. Nerlens Noel and Jack Cooley will duke it out down low in a matchup of two top-notch pivots with conflicting games and even more contrasting backgrounds. Noel, the heralded freshman cover boy on prep magazines and fixture near the top of most NBA mock drafts, brings a flashy style of play predicated upon athleticism and playing above the rim. Cooley, a blue-collar senior center, is a former video game addict who is anything but flamboyant. The Luke Harangody lookalike plays mostly below the rim, but is one of college basketball’s best rebounders and most efficient inside scorers. The winner of this matchup of opposites could tip the scales in what figures to be a hotly contested game.
Ryan Harrow Returns. The N.C. State transfer has only played ten minutes all season and has yet to score a field goal thanks to an illness and family matter which sidelined him for Kentucky’s last four games. The talented, but understated point guard returns to the floor tonight, but not in his conventional starter’s role. Archie Goodwin, who has filled in at the point in Harrow’s absence, gets the nod instead. Goodwin is a natural scorer, not a natural floor general, but his facilitating skills have noticeably improved over his four games running the show. Barring a stark turnaround from Harrow in confidence, attitude and leadership, Goodwin could become a long-term solution at point, not just a makeshift replacement.
Defending the 3-point line. Kentucky has shot the lights out from behind the arc so far this season, canning 30 of the team’s 65 attempts (46-percent). Julius Mays, the Wright State transfer brought to Lexington as the team’s 3-point specialist, has ironically been the team’s least efficient weapon from long-range. Notre Dame will have to do a better job defending the 3-point line, where opponents are shooting 35-percent (28 for 80) over the last five games. Of course, the Fighting Irish can stroke the 3-ball themselves. Notre Dame is shooting 37-percent from 3-point range on the season, and the team totes five different guys who can hurt you from deep. Kentucky’s perimeter defense—namely, laying off pump fakes and closing on shooters—has been a point of emphasis for John Calipari’s bunch. It will be put to the test tonight in a primetime matchup.
Recent History. Kentucky is 11-1 in its past 12 games against Notre Dame dating back to 1990. The two teams last met in December of 2010 in Lexington, where the Cats knocked off the Irish, 72-58.
Prediction: Notre Dame 72, Kentucky 64
Rationale: A young team cobbled together over the last month is no match this time of year for an experienced group that’s been together for the last 13. Factor in the hostile environment, uncertainty of Harrow’s role and Notre Dame’s home court dominance, and this has the makings of a minor upset (Notre Dame should really be favored). The last time Kentucky saw a defense this good, the team scored just 68 points in a loss to Duke in Atlanta.