The No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats (9-1) have just two games remaining before the year runs out and they begin conference play on Jan. 2. First they’ll take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (4-5) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Dec. 19 before returning home to play rival No. 19 Louisville (7-1) on Dec. 26.
Here's an early look at each of the two upcoming games for the Wildcats:
Kentucky vs. Ohio State, Dec. 19
Kentucky looks to extend their winning streak to three when they take on the struggling Buckeyes on Saturday. Freshman guard Jamal Murray leads the Wildcats with 15.5 points per game, and has scored 33 total points in two wins over Eastern Kentucky and Arizona State. Kentucky held off the Sun Devils, who were coming off a win over No. 18 Texas A&M, by going on a late run in the second half to earn a 72-58 win.
The Wildcats will look to help forward Skal Labissiere break out of his current slump as the star freshman has taken just 12 shots and scored 18 points over his last four games. He fouled out in 13 minutes against Arizona State without scoring or grabbing a rebound.
"This is all a great thing that he's got to work through and it's the first time in his life," Calipari told reporters about Labissiere. "You have to understand. He came from Haiti. He played basketball for a year-and-a-half and then he played church league for two years … This is all new to him.
The Wildcats haven’t played many close games. In fact, every single Kentucky game has wound up ending by double digits, including their only loss to UCLA.
Ohio State has won two of three after a four-game losing streak, with all four games ending within single digits. The Buckeyes lost to their lone ranked opponent this season: No. 10 Virginia. Thad Matta’s team is led by junior forward Marc Loving, who averages a team-high 16.8 points and 6.9 rebounds on 47.3 percent shooting in 35.1 minutes per game. Loving has scored in double figures every game this season and had 14 points in the Buckeyes’ 75-55 loss to UConn on Saturday. Forward Jae’Sean Tate is averaging 12 points and 6.3 rebounds on 53.3 percent from the floor.
Prediction: Ohio State is a young team with just one junior and senior. Even a one-and-done factory like Kentucky has a few more upper-classmen and as we know, a lot more talent. This one won't be close.
Kentucky wins, 78-62.
No. 19 Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 26
One of the premiere rivalries in all of college basketball resumes as the Louisville Cardinals make their way an hour down the road to Rupp Arena. Kentucky leads the all-time series 33-15 and these two last met in Dec. 2014 with Kentucky ranked No. 1 and the host Cardinals at No. 4. The Wildcats earned the win, 58-50. In the previous meeting, Kentucky defeated Louisville by five points in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville lost to their only ranked opponent so far (No. 3 Michigan State) but has cleaned up rather easily in all of their other games, winning them all by 20 points each. As a team, the Cardinals have scored 197 points in its last two in wins over Grand Canyon and Eastern Michigan. The Cardinals are led by senior guard Damion Lee, who is averaging 18.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting in 29.5 minutes. In his last three games, Lee has converted 19 of his 38 shot attempts for 63 points.
Louisville plays four games this week leading up to the game with Kentucky in 12 days. The Cardinals could enter the game 11-1 while the Wildcats can go in 10-1.
While all of Kentucky’s starting five is different this year, guard Tyler Ulis was the star of the show in last year’s win over Louisville. Ulis came off the bench and scored 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting including two three-pointers. So far this season, Ulis is averaging 12.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 34.3 minutes. In an 11-point win over then-No. 5 Duke on Nov. 17, Ulis shot 6-13 for 18 points to go with six assists and four rebounds. He’s recorded 23 assists his last three games. Senior Alex Poythress has come on lately, totaling 31 points and 19 rebounds in his last two games.
Prediction: Kentucky only plays one game between now and Dec. 26 while Louisville has to play several. The time off over the holidays is something John Calipari believes in and it should benefit the Wildcats. The extra practices may get Labissiere going again before they take on their arch rivals.
Kentucky wins, 74-68