Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in my home town of Louisville at the former home of the Louisville Cardinals (and now Rupp Arena West), Freedom Hall. Of course, yours truly and the missus will be at the event enjoying the evening. For that reason, Ken will be doing the postmortem tonight.
Those of us who have been around a few years (some may read as "old") remember the day when there was a genuine rivalry between Kentucky and Notre Dame. For those of you who don't remember that rivalry, I'd like to refresh your memory by referring you here and here. Those two links are to Jon Scott's site, BigBlueHistory.net, which have not just one but two rivalry pages about Notre Dame.
Let's take a look at how these two teams compare, record wise, this year:
|Rank and Records||ND||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#225||#4|
|RPI Top 50||1-0||0-2|
Kentucky, so far, has played a much, much tougher schedule including more games away from home. But the Irish have defeated their only RPI top 50 opponent, while Kentucky has lost 2 of their three games versus the RPI top 50, but does have one big win versus the highly ranked Washington Huskies.
Moving on to roster changes, let's see what has happened to the Notre Dame roster between last year and this:
|Luke Harangody||6-8||246||Senior||Major loss|
|Tory Jackson||5-11||195||Senior||Major loss|
|Jonathan Peoples||6-3||207||Senior||Major reserve loss|
Of course, we all are aware of the loss of Luke Harangody, who led the Irish in scoring and rebounding for a couple of years, but also notable is Tory Jackson, who was the straw that stirred the Irish cocktail last year, dishing out over 5 assists per game.
|Eric Atkins||6-2||173||Freshman||New, impact freshman|
Not much to say here. Eric Atkins was a Rivals.com 4* recruit out of high school and is playing major reserve minutes in his first year, even starting one game.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Basketball Roster
|Tim Abromaitis||21||F||Returning starter||235||6-8||senior|
|Eric Atkins||-||G||Impact freshman||173||6-2||freshman|
|Mike Broghammer||33||F||Returning reserve||248||6-9||sophomore|
|Joey Brooks||32||G||Returning reserve||215||6-5||sophomore|
|Jack Cooley||45||F||Returning reserve||244||6-9||sophomore|
|Ben Hansbrough||23||G||Returning starter||203||6-3||senior|
|Luke Harangody||44||F||No longer with team||246||6-8||senior|
|Thomas Knight||25||F||Returning reserve||253||6-10||sophomore|
|Tom Kopko||5||G||Returning reserve||187||6-2||senior|
|Scott Martin||14||G||Reserve last year, starter this year||219||6-8||senior|
|Tyrone Nash||1||G||Returning starter, former UK recruit||232||6-8||senior|
|Carleton Scott||34||F||Major reserve last yer, starter this year||218||6-8||senior|
Unlike Kentucky, Notre Dame's roster is chock full of juniors and seniors, and that fact will matter against Kentucky. The Irish are not as talented, but they are vastly more experienced and every single one of these players with the exception of the freshmen have been playing in coach Mike Brey's system for years.
The Four Factors to Winning
The Four Factors for this game look like this:
As you can see, this chart favors Notre Dame, slightly. They get to the line more often and rebound the ball offensively better than Kentucky, at least when we consider the numbers strictly. Kentucky shoots a little better and both teams take good care of the ball
What this chart does not tell you is that ND has done all it's damage versus weak teams. The toughest team Notre Dame has played was the Wisconsin Badgers on a neutral floor, and they won that low-scoring affair 58-51. Notre Dame did also beat a pretty good Georgia Bulldogs team on a neutral court in overtime, so if you want a pretty good idea of where this team is, look at that particular game. That game was a foul fest heavily in favor of the Fighting Irish, just like the UNC-Kentucky game was. The Dawgs' athleticism forced the Irish into 20% turnovers, an uncharacteristically high number for the normally circumspect Irish.
Overall Game Analysis
This game pits solid, mature Division I players against NBA-talented freshmen, something Kentucky will see a lot this year. Mike Brey's squad is a solid offensive club with mostly the same strengths and weaknesses as Kentucky, except that UK is stronger defensively.
But one thing they do a lot better than Kentucky is get to the line and shoot free throws. As we all know by now, that is the most efficient way to score in basketball, and Kentucky must find a way to minimize the impact of that statistic, either by getting a high percentage of offensive rebounds, or shooting a very high eFG%.
One of the things we have seen so far this year from John Calipari is that he is not pressuring as much on defense as he did last year, and consequently, UK is not producing turnovers at a very high rate. Notre Dame does not really pressure much on defense, being more of a club that tries to beat you with offensive efficiency.
It will be instructive to see if Calipari tries to attack Notre Dame's ballhandling like Georgia did. It didn't quite work out for Georgia, and with Kentucky's thin bench, I don't think I'd bet on that approach.
Overall, Kentucky will have to win this basketball game by doing what it has done all season -- taking care of the ball, doing a good job on the offensive glass, and hitting shots. Kentucky is an improving defensive club, and if they continue to improve, it will mean good things versus the Irish.