Once again, we come to the time of year when the Kentucky Wildcats face off against their most detested rival, the Louisville Cardinals. This is the game that every Big Blue fan, and every Cardinal fan, has in mind the minute after the horn sounds on the previous year's game. For one, it is looking forward to extending the winning streak, and for the other, it is revenge.
It is my wont, normally, to supply a bunch of statistics and analysis thereof, because up until now, we have had to play opponents which were unfamiliar, or play familiar teams early in the season when statistics were necessary to better discuss how the team in question was playing. We don't need those here, and this preview will be in narrative form. If you want to look a the stats the best place to go is to the pregame statistical analysis on Statsheet.com.
First of all, from a big-picture standpoint, if any of you think that UK is simply going to run over Louisville tomorrow in Rupp Arena, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Yes, we manhandled them last year, but this is a vastly different and more talented team than last year. Their personnel are better, their returning players are better, and this team, in my opinion, would defeat the Indiana Hoosiers right now if the two teams were to play anywhere but in Bloomington, and possibly there as well.
Enumerating Strengths and Weaknesses
- In this game, the Wildcats have several advantages, #1 among which is Rupp Arena. Even if we accept the polls and place these two teams nearly even (which I, and most of us, do not), Rupp Arena alone is enough to swing the balance in favor of Kentucky.
- The second advantage is talent. Not one of Louisville's players could start for Kentucky right now, and only a couple would see serious minutes if they were bench players. Kentucky is more talented than Louisville at every position, and at some positions, vastly so.
- The third advantage is backcourt size. Louisville's guards are very small, and Kentucky can literally invert their guards and post them up at will with a high probability of success. The two starting guards, Peyton Siva and Chris Smith, are 6'0" and 6'2" respectively. Kentucky can slide Darius Miller to the 2 and Doron Lamb to the point and have a size mismatch for which Louisville has no answer.
- Finally, Kentucky is much longer than Louisville as a team, and just as athletic. Kentucky's effective height is almost 79", 3 inches taller than Louisville. In fact, Louisville is shorter than the Division I average of 76.5".
- First among Louisville's strengths, and the biggest advantage they have, is experience. Their net experience is almost 1 year greater than Kentucky. To give you an example, that is approximately the difference between a 4-star and a low 5-star player.
- Louisville is also a very deep team, and that depth is very good. Louisville consistently plays eight players more than 10 minutes a game, and could go even deeper with talented freshman Kevin Ware if he is ready.
- Louisville is a very physical team. Kentucky has not responded well this year to physical play, and the Cardinals are amongst the most physical you will see anywhere. They are rough, tough, and will grab, kick, scratch and put their hands and bodies on the opponent.
- Louisville is a good offensive rebounding team, better than Kentucky, and steals the ball at a high rate due to their defensive pressure, but they also foul a lot, with 3 players averaging around 3 fouls per game.
- The Wildcats, as mentioned above, are not a physical team and have not responded to physical play well so far this year.
- Kentucky does not get to the line that well. They are currently #100 in Division I in that statistic.
- Kentucky has not guarded the three well against similar competition this year. They have an impressive statistical profile in 3-point defense, but if you look at the three games they have played against top-flight competition (Kansas, Indiana, and North Carolina), they have allowed a combined 50% shooting from the arc.
- Injuries are another issue. Terrence Jones, a pre-season All-American, will be less than 100% with a dislocated finger.
- Louisville is untested on the road. This will be their first foray into enemy territory this year.
- 3-point shooting is another Louisville weakness. Overall, they average 32.1% from the arc. Against their best opponents, the Vanderbilt Commodores, Memphis Tigers, and Georgetown Hoyas, Louisville has shot a combined 29.8% from deep.
- 3-point defense is also a weakness. Louisville has not been strong defending the three all year, allowing over 35% shooting, and against the same three teams I noted above, they allowed 44.3%.
- We already discussed their problems with backcourt size.
- Offensive efficiency is another team weakness. Louisville shoots 49.1 eFG%, and that includes some very ordinary teams.
- Injuries are also an issue for Louisville, although they are getting healthier by the day.
The key matchups in this game are Anthony Davis on Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva on Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Kyle Kuric. Let's look at them one at a time.
Davis and Dieng are the same size, although Dieng is slightly heavier and more mature. Davis is the vastly superior athlete and plays much longer than Dieng, and even though Dieng runs the floor well, his foot speed is less than that of Davis. Davis much be very cognizant of his fouls, as when he gets into foul trouble, Kentucky is a much different team. That will be tricky against Dieng, who is a good offensive rebounder and finishes well at the rim. Dieng will struggle guarding Davis away from the basket, where he will be much of the time on offense.
Peyton Siva is much quicker than Teague off the bounce, and is arguably much quicker than almost anyone. Teague will struggle to keep him out of the lane, but the good news is that Siva is a poor outside shooter and Teague can give him some room. Reversing the matchup, Teague is stronger and bigger than Siva, and just as athletic. When Teague gets to the rim, there will be little Siva can do to stop him. Also, if Teague is shooting well, he can shoot over the smaller Siva.
Kyle Kuric is Louisville's most dangerous perimeter shooter and leading scorer. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is Kentucky's best defender. This is the key matchup in this game of the three main ones, because it's hard to see how Louisville wins without Kuric's scoring. It is also hard to see how Kuric can match up with the athletically superior Kidd-Gilchrist. Kuric is no slouch athletically, to be sure, but Kidd-Gilchrist is a nightmare matchup for him defensively.
Kentucky wins if they:
- Take care of the basketball;
- Force Louisville into a half-court game;
- Take their time and break the Louisville press;
- Hold Kyle Kuric under his average;
- Keep Louisville off the offensive glass.
Louisville wins if they:
- Disrupt the ‘Cats with their press, and force Kentucky into turnovers;
- Siva gets into the lane constantly;
- Get Anthony Davis or Kidd-Gilchrist into major foul trouble;
- Shoot the ball exceptionally well from the perimeter;
- Win the turnover and offensive rebound battle.
This will be a very tough test for the Wildcats, and as a rivalry game, all bets are surely off. Louisville is deep, talented, and physical. They will attack Kentucky like they have nothing to lose, and the loss to Georgetown on Wednesday will only serve as extra motivation. Kentucky cannot come out half-cocked, cannot let the press rattle them, and must stay focused in order to beat the Cardinals.
Louisville is definitely the underdog in this affair, which makes them all the more dangerous. Rick Pitino is a master of situations such as this, and will have his team as ready as they can be. Last year, he didn't account for Josh Harrellson's improvement, and I guarantee you, that is the kind of mistake Pitino will not make this year.
Calipari has the Wildcats playing just okay, given their talent level, and he has to be worried about the physicality of Louisville and how his young players will hold up under what will be by far the most intense pressure defense the ‘Cats have seen all year. He has to have them focused and ready, so that they can exploit the matchups that mostly favor Kentucky.
Despite the apparent Kentucky advantages, this game has all the makings of an instant classic. Louisville is fully capable of pulling the upset, and doesn't need all that much to go right for them to do it. They will be focused, angry, and ready. If UK cannot match their intensity, the Wildcats could find themselves in a bad way late in this one.