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Kentucky Basketball: How Kentucky Can Win As The Underdog Against Louisville

Kentucky is a decided underdog this year against the Louisville Cardinals, but perhaps not so much as some pundits seem to think.

Louisville's inside players are going to be seeing some of this on Friday.
Louisville's inside players are going to be seeing some of this on Friday.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

One of the great things about the Kentucky Wildcats vs. Louisville Cardinals game every year is the amount of attention it draws. This year, perhaps due to a four-year streak of wins over the Cardinals and some early-game difficulties for this year's Kentucky team, reaction around the Big Blue Nation to the advent of the annual contest with their most detested rival has been uncharacteristically muted. There is lots of gloom and doom floating around -- a surprising amount, actually -- primarily due to the conventional wisdom that Kentucky is the underdog by quite a lot.

Historically, there have been relatively few upsets in this series where the unranked (AP poll) participant overcomes the ranked team, but there have been a few since its renewal in 1983 -- all by Louisville. This is primarily because Kentucky has been ranked much more often than not. 32 times before Saturday Kentucky and Louisville have met since 1983, and only in a total of 8 of them was UK was unranked. Louisville has been unranked 13 times in that same span, and has upset a ranked Kentucky team 4 times: 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2002. Throughout all these years, the Cards and the 'Cats have only played 4 games in which both teams were unranked by the AP. So Kentucky will be attempting to make history on Saturday by handing the Cardinals their first unranked-ranked defeat in the series since its renewal.

That sounds like a plan, but how do we get there from here? The experts, and in this case I'm referring mostly to Ken Pomeroy, has the Cardinals at 80% to win this game, and the margin at a convincing 9 points. Not only that, but this game is being held in the Yum! Center, and since moving into that fine arena, the Cardinals are 0-1 against Kentucky there, and sit at 0-4 against the 'Cats since 2010. Louisville has all the motivation it needs, and no mistake.

So how does UK get this win, a win they badly need for seeding purposes? Let's first look to what the Cardinals do well:

  • Louisville is currently the #1 defensive team in the nation, holding opponents to 80.4 points/100 possessions, or 0.84 points/possession.
  • Louisville is the #1 team in the nation in turnover %, producing a remarkable 30.8% turnovers on average, every game.
  • Louisville is spectacular on steals, taking the ball away from the opponent 16.9% of the time. That means that over half of their turnovers come off steals, a terrific stat and #2 in the land.
  • Louisville is very efficient offensively at 112.3 points/100 possessions or 1.12 pts/possession, the 18th most efficient offense in Division I.
  • Finally, Louisville is an excellent offensive rebounding team, 39.9% and 16th in the country.

Louisville's major strength, and a big part of what drives their offensive statistics, is their ability to force turnovers. Because they get so many steals, which are by definition "live" turnovers that result in transition along with the fact that Louisville is a really excellent transition team, a lot of their points are "easy" points that come off layups, rebound stick-backs, and transition open threes. Given their rather pedestrian shooting numbers, I would estimate that close to 30% of the Cardinal offense comes directly or indirectly from their defensive pressure and offensive rebounding combined.

The upshot of all this is that Louisville's ability to turn teams over, along with their excellent offensive rebounding, is what is driving their performance so far. This is supported by their game record as well. In only one game so far did Louisville force less than 20% turnovers - that game was against the Duke Blue Devils, and represents their only loss on the year. Against Northern Iowa, which was a close game at 51-46, Louisville got pounded on the offensive glass.

These two games are precious little in the way of data, but they may indicate how Kentucky can win this game. But first, let's enumerate Kentucky's strengths:

  • Ballhandling. Kentucky is a solid ballhandling team, averaging only 17.5% turnovers -- excellent for a Calipari-coached squad.
  • Kentucky shoots the ball slightly better than the Cards do at 53.8 to 51.2 eFG%. Not a big advantage, but an important one.
  • Kentucky is almost as good as Louisville in preventing offensive rebounds, surrendering only 30.6% to Louisville's 29.8%. Most of this has come lately
  • Kentucky blocks almost 19% of shots taken by an opponent, 4th in the country and nearly 9 percentage points more than Louisville.
  • Kentucky's 2-point defense is significantly better than Louisville's. Louisville is allowing almost 45% from 2-point range, and Kentucky less than 40%, good enough for 13th in the land.
  • Kentucky is an even better defensive team from an eFG% standpoint than the Cardinals, 42.3% to 43.9%

So the way to win here becomes somewhat clear, and JLeverenz discussed some of it more in depth in his most recent article. In the first place, the Cardinals are not a particularly good shooting team. They aren't bad, but their 3-point percentage is below the Division I average, and most of their hay is made on the inside, where Kentucky is at its very best defensively. That means, as JLev discussed, more of the Cardinal's scoring is going to have to come from the midrange and beyond then they are used to.

Kentucky must also keep turnovers, particularly steals, to a minimum. Louisville is used to getting between 3 and 13 more steals than their opponent per game, and their closest games have been where that number is on the low end of that range. That seems to be in Kentucky's wheelhouse, but many UK fans rightly fear that Ryan Harrow is too soft to avoid them. Harrow is much better now than he was, but this one is a major wait-and-see. If Harrow is intimidated into turnovers, the Wildcats' hopes take a big hit.

Finally, the Wildcats must take care of the defensive glass. This is the area where I personally have the most concern, because UK as a team has had 35% or more offensive rebounds (a good, solid number) only 4 times all year (rounding up). Louisville has done it 8 times. That's a sure red flag to me, and even though all but one of Kentucky's best rebounding games have been on its current winning streak, they must hold Louisville down on the glass if they are to have a decent chance to win.

So in summary, Kentucky's strengths are such that they have a better chance in this game than the statistics might otherwise predict, but they must concentrate on two main areas -- good ballhandling and good rebounding. If they achieve both, it doesn't by any means guarantee a victory, but it makes one much more likely.

Of course if the Wildcats shoot the ball at 32% eFG like they did against Baylor, or allow Louisville to shoot 56% eFG like Notre Dame did, all the rebounding and ballhandling in the world won't stave off a defeat. Also, if Kentucky does not play hard the entire game, none of this will matter.