One day remains before the Louisville Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats join the battle in the new Cardinal palace. Down by the river shall they meet, driven by mutual detestation, at least among many fans of both teams. Young players will learn the meaning of a "rivalry game" that they erroneously think they now know. Older players will hope for retribution, or the elation of multiple victories over a despised rival. Every year about this time, the Commonwealth is galvanized by the advent of this contest.
Fans of the Cardinals are understandably excited about their team this year. After suffering through a year of constant negative commentary courtesy of high-profile recruiting misses, early defections to the NBA, ineligible players, injuries, and Rick Pitino's seven-year old x-rated reenactment of Billy Joel's Scenes from an Italian Restaurant played out in front of the whole world, the Louisville faithful have much to be thankful for right now. They could not be much happier with the 11-1 record they sport coming into the Kentucky game, and Louisville is fresh off their two best games of this season. All that bad news seems to be behind them, and the Cardinals team is unquestionably playing well.
Yes, it must be good to be a Cardinal fan right now with respect to how the team has looked so far this year. But appearances can be deceiving, as we all know. So now, the question becomes this: Are the Cardinals a paper tiger, having feasted on too many Danish and not enough meat and potatoes? Let's compare the schedules so far:
|Average RPI Opp.||114.92||158.17|
|Average KenPom Opp.||126.17||176.58|
Some interesting things to note about the records so far:
- Louisville has the same record against top 25 teams as UK does, and a better record against the RPI top 50.
- Louisville has a better away record, and although they did not play a team as tough as the North Carolina Tar Heels, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are no pushover.
- Kentucky has played many more games away from home. This doesn't necessarily mean a lot, since Louisville might just be really good at home and that won't change. But the loss to the Drexel Dragons at home casts significant doubt on that.
- Kentucky has played a significantly tougher schedule by any measure. Of course, that won't be true by the time the season's over, but that fact is utterly irrelevant now.
- Kenpom has this game as a Louisville win by 2 points. He figures that probability at 60%.
It is axiomatic that playing well against a tougher schedule make you a better team, but I want to caution Kentucky fans not to take too much solace in that notion. Kentucky is going into what will unquestionably be the most hostile place they will see all year. The Yum! Center seats about 4000 more people than Freedom Hall, and that will mean at least 3950 more Cardinal fans than any UK team has ever faced in history.
The Cardinals are playing a different brand of basketball this year than they have the last few years, primarily due to the lack of a true post player. They are pressing more, reminiscent of Pitino's days at Kentucky, and Pitino is playing 11 players over 10 minutes per game, and virtually his entire team at least 5. If that reminds Kentucky fans of the 1990's it should. The Cardinals run the floor very well, although their fast break offense often suffers from poor spacing.
The big question in my mind, tactics-wise, is this: Will Rick Pitino dare to press Kentucky? Brandon Knight may not have the "one man fast break" rep that John Wall had last year, but he is far, far superior speed- and skill-wise to any guard Louisville has faced this year, and Kentucky is among the elite ballhandling teams in the nation. Yes, I know they have faced Shelvin Mack of the Butler Bulldogs and he's very good, but he is no Brandon Knight.
The Louisville offense depends on turnovers to make it go, and not one single time this year has Kentucky turned the ball over on 20% or more of possessions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have forced 20% or more turnovers in every single game this year except one, and the Cardinals on offense turn the ball over at greater than 20% over half the time. It will be interesting to see how the turnover battle goes given the meeting of a good ballhandling team and a pressing team.
So as we continue to prepare for what looks like an epic confrontation, we have looked at the records, and a little bit of the tactics. We'll continue to have more on this game as we move inexorably nearer to tip-off.