Kentucky Wildcats Vs. Louisville Cardinals: 2014 NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal Preview

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the Wildcats have a chance to meet most of their preseason expectations for the NCAA Tournament. But it won't be easy, and it will be opposed.

As usual for games where we have played the opponent twice, we will dispense with all the formalities, and simply refer you to our first game preview earlier in the year that dealt with things you probably already know. The only notable change to the lineup is the absence of Chane Behanan, which some may justifiably consider addition by subtraction.

But before we get to that, there's been an issue that, whilst it hasn't been exactly eating at the Big Blue Nation, it has been fodder for comment, and that is why Las Vegas is picking Louisville by between 4.5 and 5 points (now apparently down to between 4 and 4.5). First of all, Vegas really has no concern about who is better or worse. The fact that they seem to be right so often has more to do with the power of the gambling public to get it right than anything else. Vegas attempts to set the line so that the money will be evenly split for both teams. No matter what the actual margin, Vegas always makes money this way.

So what you have here is the national perception, mostly from people who are not fans of Kentucky or Louisville, that Louisville is the better squad. That's what all the number-crucher's figures say, from Ken Pomeroy (73-68 Louisville) to Nate Silver, who has a similar win percentage (68-32 Louisville) but doesn't publish a spread that I can find. They don't care what advantages Kentucky has, or if the team is a bad matchup. It only matters what the bettors think, and Vegas is hoping most bettors want about 4.5 points to bet on the Wildcats.

Based on the season results, you'd have to say that's justified. So forget the line. Just like in horse racing, the runners have no idea what their odds are, and don't care. Louisville is a decided favorite, and people are going to take the favorite even when the spread favors the underdog. Read about that here.

Now, who is the better squad? We'll look at that question in the context of this game right now.

Advantages by team

Louisville

Kentucky
Pros Cons
Significantly superior size Young and inexperienced. Never been here before.
Numerous likely future professionals Below average perimeter shooting
Balanced scoring So-so 2-point percentage for such a big team
Outstanding coach Below average free throw shooting
Excellent depth in the front court Average ballhandling
Outstanding rebounding team So-so season record
Gets to the free throw line a lot Inconsistent guard play
Great shot blocking team

Kentucky

Louisville
Pros Cons
Superior season record Small team overall, particularly in the back court
Superior defense Below average free throw shooting
Disruptive pressure that generates turnovers Good perimeter shooting team
Consistently good guard play Below average defensive rebounding team
Hall of Fame coach Blocks very few shots
Experienced at all positions in NCAA Tournament play
Outstanding steals team
Forces over 25% turnovers
Overall quickness
Good ballhandling

Four Factors for tonight

What it all means

You look at the above, and if you weren't a Kentucky fan, you'd have to favor Louisville as well. Louisville has done some very good things this season, but they have some problems that they've been able to cover up by mauling extremely inferior competition. That can't be compensated out very well, although Ken Pomeroy, among others do try to do so. The reality is, though, that as strong as Louisville looks, they have not defeated one team all year that looks anything like Kentucky. Not only did they lose to Kentucky itself, but also to the North Carolina Tar Heels, who also has a big size advantage inside. Having said that, it does not mean that they can't beat Kentucky tonight — be assured that they absolutely can.

Louisville's main calling card, of course, is defensive pressure. Their smaller guards make it very hard on teams, particularly guards, to get the ball up the floor. They constantly try to get into the passing lanes to get steals for easy baskets, trap the ballhandler to force long passes they can steal, and they play with a ferocious intensity. That's not going to change tonight. In fact, it may well intensify.

Obviously, this kind of defense can produce a lot of fouls, and if that happens, Louisville will be at a substantial disadvantage. If the game is not called close, the Cardinals will find themselves in a game that works for them, and Kentucky must find a way to compensate or they will quickly fall behind.

Kentucky's main calling card is getting rebounds, and not just offensive rebounds. Since the regular season ended, Kentucky has allowed only one team, Florida, to get more than 25% of their missed shots. They held Georgia to just 10.7% OR's. If they can do that to Louisville, plus get 35% or more offensive rebounds, it would make up for some, even most, of the turnovers that Louisville's defense might produce.

When Louisville has the ball

To be effective, Kentucky has to do three main things on defense:

  • Minimize Luke Hancock's looks — Hancock's relatively pedestrian 3-point percentage of .339 is deceptive. Hancock was coming back from a shooting hand injury early in the year, and it took him almost to the middle of the conference season to return to form. He is the Cardinal's most consistent shooter now from the arc, and even though Russ Smith can go off and make everything, he's battling a big size differential, where Hancock isn't. Smith's penetration often leads to open looks for Hancock. Kentucky must avoid that.

  • Rebound — Kentucky has been fierce on the boards lately, but Louisville is a good rebounding club and more athletic than Wichita State. If Kentucky can hold Louisville under 20% offensive rebounds, it will be a great sign for the Blue and White.

  • Get back quickly — Transition defense has been a problem for Kentucky all season, and the Wildcats must get back quickly to avoid Louisville's transition. When a shot goes up from three for Kentucky, somebody has to immediately move into the middle of the floor above the free throw line to prepare to get back in case of a long rebound. The Wildcats need to maintain good balance and not send too many people to the glass. Three should be enough.

When Kentucky has the ball

Again, there are three main keys:

  • Be patient — Pitino's matchup zone is not bulletproof, and by moving the ball with short, crisp passes, the Wildcats should be able to get driving lanes to the bucket. Louisville is great at taking charges, so Kentucky needs to shoot a pull up or a floater fairly often, and also look for kickouts to open shooters. Attacking the rim is very important, because Louisville's guards are simply too small to handle the 6'6" Wildcats back court.

  • Rebound — If Kentucky can rebound 30% or more of their misses while holding Louisville at or under 20%, the will be very tough to beat. Those rebounds provide potential easy points, and extra shots.

  • Avoid turnovers above all else — Louisville's defensive efficiency strongly correlates to forced turnovers. It may sound intuitive, but it's absolutely critical for Kentucky to avoid turnovers. Last time, Louisville managed to turn Kentucky over only 16% of possessions, and we all know how that went. On the other hand, they turned Rutgers over 35% of possessions and won 92-31.

Parting thoughts

This game is a tough matchup for Louisville, but having said that, Kentucky has been its own worst enemy as often as not this season, and just because that hasn't reared its ugly head in a while doesn't mean that tendency has vanished. I worry about the Wildcats listening to people like Pat Forde, who writes that Louisville fans are filled with dread over this matchup. Louisville will be prepared for this game, they are talented, experienced, and will be tough for Kentucky to defeat.

However, Kentucky has somewhat more control over their own fate than Louisville does, which should both be cause for celebration as well as concern. Kentucky can force Louisville to beat them from the perimeter, and although Louisville is more than competent from three, they face a lot of tall guys to shoot over. In addition, Louisville has five fewer fouls to give on their front line this time around, and there is no getting around the reality that if Montrezl Harrell gets in serious foul trouble, the Cardinals are in dire straights. You can't say that about any single player from Kentucky, although Andrew Harrison has a propensity to pick up cheap fouls and he's really important to the smooth operation of the Wildcats offense, if Kentucky's offense can ever be accurately described as "smooth."

On the other hand, Kentucky can be erratic from the perimeter, is proficient at missing layups, will turn the ball over with lazy and habit passes, and can sometimes forget that they have teammates. This is the kind of self-destruction that older teams, like Louisville, are able to avoid, and the reason that experience matters. I don't think the moment will be too big for the Wildcats, but you know it won't be too big for the Cardinals.

There are no magic bullets for either team, but each team possesses a weapon that has to be dealt with — forced turnovers for the Cardinals and size, which manifests itself as rebounding and shotblocking, for the Wildcats. If either team can impose their will in these areas while denying their opponent the other, they are likely to win the game. The wild card will be free throw shooting — the Cardinals need to do it better than Kentucky does just to stay even, because the Wildcats get there more often.

Forget the line. This game is a toss-up, and either team could win it.

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