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Kentucky (11) @ Louisville (22): Game Analysis

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It's time to take a look at the Kentucky Wildcats @ Louisville Cardinals game from a more analytical standpoint, as the game is now only a matter of hours away.  As usual, passions across the Commonwealth are running high, and Kentucky as well as Louisville fans are gearing up for the contest.

First off, if you haven't seen the clip of Rick Pitino's press conference, you should watch it.  Pitino is typically charming and I found him very funny and sincere.  The clip of Coach Cal at Card Chronicle is not the best one (surprise), because he is all business in that part of the press conference.  Instead, I recommend you check out this clip.

Now, to business.  Normally, I start off these pre-games with a look at the personnel changes from last year to this.  I don't really think that's necessary for this team, because most of us know the Cardinal players as well as our own, and I know that 90% of the Big Blue Nation could compile an excellent scouting report of our bitter rival.  Instead, we will jump right into the meat of the matter right after the jump.

The Four Factors to Winning

No statistics in basketball save the final score are more important than the Four Factors.  The Four Factors tell us a lot about a team.  We'll be looking at these stats both graphically and in table form, adjusted for competition and raw.

First, the Four Factors raw, presented graphically, courtesy of, as always:

This graph tells us that the Cardinals have been shooting the ball better than Kentucky overall, and the eFG% is the most important statistic of the four.  Offensive rebounding is also a very important stat, and the Cardinals have hit the offensive glass at about the same rate as Kentucky.  Kentucky gets to the line more often, and handles the ball better.

The takeaway here is that these two teams are very even with the slightest of edges going to Louisville.  But before we lament that, let's remember that these stats have not been adjusted at all for the competition Louisville has played, and the competition they have played is significantly inferior to that faced by Kentucky.

So to iron that out a bit, let's turn to stat master Ken Pomeroy, who manages to adjust some of his stats for the level of competition.  He doesn't adjust the Four Factors, but he does adjust the offensive and defensive efficiency, which tell us much the same thing from a somewhat higher level.  Essentially, it is a calculation of points for and points against per 100 possessions, adjusted for competition.  Here's what they say:

Team Adjusted OE Adjusted DE
Kentucky 116.9 87.2
Louisville 113.8 86.5
Delta 3.1 0.7
Advantage Kentucky Louisville

What this is supposed to be telling us is that Kentucky is 3.1 points better than Louisville offensively, and 0.7 points worse on defense, adjusted for competition, per 100 possessions.  But we all know that 100 possessions are unlikely even at the pace these teams play.  Pomeroy figures that this game will have 72 possessions, more or less, so we can figure that in that hypothetical game, Kentucky is 2.23 better on offense and 0.5 worse on defense, for a net of 1.73 to the good.  Figure in a 4-5 point home-court advantage for the Cardinals, and you come up with a Louisville win by something like 2 points.  That's what Ken Pomeroy shows in his stats analysis, to the tune of a 60% chance.

What does all this mean?  Absolutely nothing except this -- these teams are statistically very close together, and this game is a virtual toss-up.  Kentucky has a nominal advantage in the stats, adjusted for competition, but Louisville has a strong home court advantage.  So what this game comes down to, instead of two statistically-modeled teams, are matchups.  That's what we'll look into next.

Kentucky Team Advantages:

  • Short rotation.  Okay, I can hear many of you now -- "Glenn, you done lost yo' mind!  In what universe is a short rotation a benefit??

    The answer to that question is that this team is very comfortable with the rotations they use.  They are very familiar with each other, know each other's tendencies better, and have a lot of confidence in each other.  Deeper rotations necessarily have a level of unfamiliarity that works against the team concept. Fatigue just isn't an issue for Kentucky in a nationally televised game with all the timeouts.
  • Greater overall athleticism.  Louisville is very athletic, make no mistake, but Kentucky is even more athletic one through five.
  • Greater skill.  Kentucky has the more skilled players overall, and anyone who knows anything about college basketball will tell you that.
  • Better ballhandling.  Kentucky is among the elite ballhandling teams in the NCAA.  Louisville is barely in the top third.
  • Better at getting to the line.  This is not really much of an advantage against Louisville, because they are comparatively deeper and fouls are not as much of a problem.  A lot also depends upon FT%, but if UK shoots well from the line, it is a small benefit since the line is the most efficient place to score on the floor.

Louisville advantages

  • Deeper rotation.  How can the inverse of a Kentucky advantage be a Louisville advantage?  Simple.  Louisville has more fouls to use up, and that can be a real benefit in a closely-called contest.  Kentucky has an advantage with a shorter rotation, but that advantage disappears if the game is closely called.  So the rotation advantage in a relatively foul-free game goes to UK, but in a game with lots of fouls, it goes to Louisville.

    Plus, Louisville's defense is more aggressive by nature, and the Cardinals average 4 more fouls per contest than UK.  The more available fouls they have, the more aggressive they can be on defense.
  • Shooting.  No matter what we think, the stats say that Louisville is a better shooting team, percentage wise.  The Pomeroy formula tries to adjust that out for competition, but it's hard to say accurately how they will do.  We can say that Louisville shot 51% and 50% eFG against the two top 25 teams they have played so far, and Kentucky shot 41% and 48% against their two top 25 foes.
  • Home court.  This one needs no exposition.
  • Experience.  Louisville is more experienced than Kentucky 1.45 years to 1.15 years.
  • Forcing turnovers.  Louisville's press does this very well.


Point guard:  Brandon Knight vs. Peyton Siva --  Knight is taller, just as fast, and more skilled.  Siva is a better passer and just as good a penetrator, plus he has a year of experience.  Knight is a better 3-point shooter, but Siva has a higher FG%.

Advantage:  Push.  Siva's experience makes up for Knight's greater size and skill.

Shooting guard:  DeAndre Liggins vs. Preston Knowles.  The stats favor nobody.  Experience really favors neither.  Both are good defenders.  Both are 40+% 3-point shooters.  Liggins is the better passer, rebounder, and ballhandler.  Knowles is a better scorer.

Advantage:  Liggins.  Liggins is much bigger, just as quick and a devastating defender.

Small forward:  Darius Miller vs.Chris Smith

Smith has been starting recently and Buckles, who unfortunately has broken his finger and will not play, has been coming off the bench.

Smith has been playing very well lately, and as a junior, he has some experience.  But Darius Miller has played many more minutes as a high division I player, and is averaging as many points plus more rebounds and assists.  He is bigger and stronger but not as quick.

Advantage:  Miller.  Miller has too much experience, size and skill for Smith to overcome.

Power forward:  Terrence Jones vs. Kyle Kuric

Pitino has been going small lately at the 4, and 6'4" Kyle Kuric has been answering the bell by taking his man away from the basket and raining threes on his foes.  He is vastly undersized for the position but possesses excellent athleticism and is fearless rebounding the ball.

Unfortunately for Louisville, Terrence Jones is just a mismatch for everybody.  He's too big for undersized 4's and too quick for normal power forwards.  He handles the ball like a guard.

Advantage:  Jones.  Jones is simply too big and too athletic for Kuric to disadvantage him like he has others.

Center:  Josh Harrellson vs. Gorgui Dieng

Believe it or not, Dieng is a very serviceable center.  He is very long and athletic, and runs the floor like a deer.  Long, lean, athletic and with reasonably good hands if not a big body, Dieng is much more capable than I would have expected at this point in the season.

That being said, Josh Harrellson (no matter what you may have thought of him at the beginning of the year) is quite possibly the biggest surprise on either squad.  Harrellson has dedicated his game to doing the little things that help the team, like blocking out, getting offensive rebounds, and playing tough post defense.  Harrellson has learned at the knee of one of the best unavailable college basketball players in the country, Enes Kanter, and he has learned a lot.

Advantage:  Harrellson.  Amazingly, Harrellson's lack of athleticism is not going to hurt him because of his thicker, stronger body and his much greater experience.  Despite his apparent clunkiness, Harrellson has developed excellent defensive footwork and has a an unparalleled work ethic, something Dieng has yet to demonstrate.

Bench play:  Simply put, Louisville has a deeper bench, but four players are likely to be unavailable -- Jared Swopshire, Mike Marra, Rakeem Buckles, and Elisha Justice.  Swopshire doesn't really count, since he hasn't been available all year and apparently has a Jodie Meeks-type injury.  Justice may play, but it would seem to be in a diminished capacity at best.  That reduces the Cardinals depth from 11 double-digit minutes players to 8.  That will force less-used reserves off the bench if the Cardinals are to play as aggressively as they have so far this year.

With the injuries, Louisville is badly hobbled and their bench is far less dangerous.  It is still deeper than Kentucky, who brings only 10 scholarship players into the Yum! Center, but quality depth has suddenly become a problem for the Cards.

Advantage:  Louisville.  Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their depth advantage is far slimmer than they would normally expect, but they are still have an overall bench advantage.

Overall analysis

It is too bad, really, that both teams cannot meet full strength.  That is not to say that Louisville does not have enough to defeat Kentucky tomorrw, they do, particularly if they play harder, something that has occasionally been a problem for Kentucky.  Louisville's biggest edge in this game is the home crowd, and Kentucky has fared poorly this year in their single attempt at playing in front of a hostile home crowd, regardless of how much better they look on paper.

This game will require Kentucky's best effort to win, because the more experienced Cardinals are going to bring it to them and no mistake.  The big questions are:

  1. How much, how hard, and how effectively will Pitino be able to press?
  2. Can Kentucky avoid foul trouble to their best players, particularly Terrence Jones, who will effectively be defending a guard?
  3. Who will play the best transition defense?
  4. Who will win the battle for offensive rebounds?

This is a classic, almost revered matchup between two bitter foes.  May the best team win, and may that team be the Wildcats.