This is the third straight Sweet Sixteen for John Calipari and the Wildcats. It is only the second Sweet Sixteen for the Indiana Hoosiers since 1994.
Kentucky fans are used to thinking about the drought that UK went through at the tail end of Tubby Smith's tenure and the entirety of the Billy Gillespie stand-in, but UK's stay in the irrelevant zone was just a blip on the radar compared to IU's. Which probably explains why the Hoosiers are so happy to be here, and why they aren't ready to go home just yet.
Yes, the Hoosiers have suffered a long time, but now they seem to be back in a sustainable pattern of relevance, assuming Tom Crean's highly ranked 2012 recruiting class pans out as expected. But with all that said, the main focus right now is on one 40-minute contest that takes place tonight in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 10:00 PM EDT -- the rematch of the December 10th contest between the Hoosiers and Wildcats, this time for a lot more than bragging rights. This time, it's win or go home.
To compare and contrast the then and now, you can always go back to the game preview we did for the game last year. These days we provide less statistical analysis and more narrative, but the details will be present in both.
|Verdell Jones III [out for season]||30||24.5||2.4||5.7||41.9||0.3||1.1||30.3||2.4||3.1||75.5||0.6||2.3||2.9||3.2||2.4||0.7||0.3||1.8||7.5|
Indiana: Verdell Jones III -- Out for season -- knee.
Indiana is a talented and highly cohesive team. Both teams are very good offensive teams, both #1 in offensive efficiency in their respective conferences. Kentucky has the better efficiency of the two (we'll be looking at conference data only) at 1.2 points per possession vs. Indiana's 1.1. Both teams shoot the ball well both inside and outside the 3-point arc with Kentucky having the slightest of advantages in overall effective FG%. Both teams get to the line well and both are solid offensive rebounding teams.
Where the two teams differ is on defense. Kentucky is significantly better than Indiana defensively, although some percentage of that can be accounted for by the difference in conference strength, with the Big Ten being better top to bottom than the SEC. Even so, accounting for that only helps IU a little.
The big question for this game is, where will the battle be fought? For IU, it will mostly be in the post and on the perimeter. IU wants to get Zeller the ball down low as often as possible, hoping for a one-on-one score or a double-team that leaves one of their excellent shooters open. Their strategy in the half-court is going to be strictly inside-out, and if Kentucky helps on Zeller, they become vulnerable to IU's excellent 3-point shooting.
But the Hoosier strategy also revolves around getting the pace up as high as they can. As we pointed out in an earlier article, Indiana is somewhat pace-sensitive. They play better when the pace increases, primarily because of the great running ability of Zeller and the fact that early offense allows IU's shooters a better chance to get open behind the arc. Kentucky will want to thwart this by keeping the game as much as possible in the half court. Kentucky will run off long rebounds, steals, and blocks, but don't look for a lot of 94-foot sprints or full-court presses, as the Wildcats want to keep IU out of the running game so they can get their defense set.
The statistical advantages held by IU over Kentucky this game are essentially how much they get to the line and their excellent free throw shooting at 77%. Neither of those advantages are really significant, but they do bear mentioning.
Kentucky, on the other hand, is a better shooting team from 2, and a much better defensive team from everywhere. They also do a great job of keeping teams off the free throw line, as well as blocking shots and taking care of the basketball, all areas where they hold significant advantages. Kentucky will want to take most of their shots from inside the arc, both at the rim, off the bounce, off the lob, and in the midrange. Kentucky will shoot the three when it's available, but their focus will be on winning the game closer to the rim unless IU really packs in their defense.
In a half-court game, Indiana looks to be in a difficult situation. They have only two really useful matchups in personnel, Victor Oladipo (depending on who guards him) and Cody Zeller. In order to avoid foul trouble, which is critical for Kentucky, Anthony Davis is going to have to play position defense on Zeller and let him go if Zeller beats him with a post move. That's been Calipari's MO with Davis all year, which is why he has one of the lowest foul rates of any big man in the nation.
Other that that, though, the matchups all favor Kentucky, particularly since Verdell Jones is no longer available. Normally, he would be a good defensive matchup against Doron Lamb and at least a serviceable one against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. With Jones out, Will Sheehey will be forced to guard one of those guys, and both are a mismatch that Kentucky will exploit. When Darius Miller is in, the mismatch becomes even worse. How IU handles that will determine how successful they can be on defense against Kentucky.
Another problem for IU is how to handle Marquis Teague. Teague beat Jordan Hulls off the dribble many times in the second half of the previous game, and his ballhandling and decision-making have only improved since. Teague living in the lane is a recipe for many layups, or dunks by Terrence Jones and Davis, and foul trouble for Watford and Zeller. This is probably the key matchup in the game, and it would not surprise me if IU tried to move Oladipo over onto Teague and hope Hulls can hold his own against the taller and quicker Lamb. Kentucky must be ready for that.
For Kentucky, they have to stay home on Indiana's shooters, particularly Sheehey, Watford and Hulls. This will give them chances to get into the lane, and Davis will be the major defense against that, but only if he can avoid fouls. The Division I average for 3-point attempts is 33% of shots, and IU is right on that number. However, Kentucky is one of the best in Division I at holding down 3-point attempts. UK allows opponents to get off only 27.3% of shots as threes, and if they can do that for IU, it will really hurt the Hoosier's ability to score.
But the X-factor in this game for Kentucky is Kyle Wiltjer. He wasn't even available as a weapon in the first game, only played 7 minutes and didn't take a shot. In this game, he is a matchup nightmare for the smaller Hoosiers, and his deadly 3-point shooting a variable that they simply didn't have to account for in Bloomington. When IU brings in Tom Pritchard in relief of Zeller or Watford, look for Calipari to counter with Wiltjer. That matchup is no good for IU.
Tonight's game is going to be a chess match between two great coaches, and a test of wills between two good basketball teams. Unlike some other teams in this tournament, IU plays very well together as a unit. Notwithstanding the upset in Bloomington, the Hoosiers are a legitimate threat to win this game and end the Wildcats' season early. But to do so, they will have to play the game of their lives, and get at least a little help from Kentucky.