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Kentucky Basketball: Searching For The Silver Lining

Judging by the response to Kentucky's narrow loss on Saturday, we have to deal with the perception of the silver lining that so many seem to have found.

Archie Goodwin mades some big threes down the stretch on Saturday.
Archie Goodwin mades some big threes down the stretch on Saturday.
Andy Lyons

First of all, you all know that I hate losing to Louisville. I can never say that too much. Writing it every day in my own blood would not be to much.

Now that I have that out of the way, let's do what we really haven't done so far and look for the "silver lining" in the cloud of loss that so many seem to have found. I have read commentary about this for a couple of days now, and there are some valid points to be considered.

First of all, there is this reality, or more of a truism, really: If a loss is inevitable, it is never bad to lose a legitimately close game to a top five team in their arena.

I don't think there's much to argue about there. Losing close to Louisville, regardless of the harrumphing of Louisville fans about UK being hot from three and all the foul trouble helping UK. Notre Dame was blazing hot against UK from three, and those shots were largely challenged. Kentucky got mostly clean looks against U of L and it's about time they started to fall.

As far as the fouls are concerned, every year Louisville gets called for a bunch of fouls against UK. It's the way they play, and this being a rivalry game, it is usually going to be called pretty close. They have no right to complain about the fouls, because they should know by now that the officials aren't going to let them play as rough as they want in a rivalry game.

Kentucky produced an efficiency on offense that very few teams have achieved this year against the Cardinals. In fact, Kentucky's offensive efficiency against the Cards are the highest on record against them this year: 107.1. Their season average coming into the game was under 81 points per 100 possessions, or put another way, the Cards usually give up an average of about 0.81 points per possession, and gave up 1.07 against UK. Louisville's previous high for an opponent was 1.03 to the Memphis Tigers on the road with no Gorgui Dieng available.

So I think you have to say that was a bright spot in the dark cloud. The flip side to that is the fact that Kentucky has yielded 1.11 points or more per possession 3 times this year, including this game, and every one of them were losses. Louisville produced the second-highest offensive efficiency of the year against UK, behind the Duke Blue Devils.

At this point, let's just throw up the Four Factors for the UK-U of L game for future reference:

Another problem, and this is becoming highly correlative, is turnovers. We knew going in that Louisville was likely to produce more turnovers than most teams have against the 'Cats, and that turned out to be true, although to nowhere near the Cards' season average of 30%. Kentucky turned the ball over 20.1% against Louisville, a number that the 2009-10 team would have gladly taken against anybody. In this game, the turnovers were almost all live, and almost all resulted in layups, which made the Cardinals much more efficient than they would have otherwise been.

I'll explain why later, but this year's team has lost every single game in which their turnover percentage has reached or exceeded 20%. Looking back at the game, at least five of those turnovers qualify as "brain-dead," i.e. they were caused by extremely poor judgment. Most of the ones I mean involved long passes, something that I'm sure Calipari warned them not to do against Louisville. Archie Goodwin was a serial violator of what I will now call General Prohibition I: Never throw a cross-court pass against Louisville. He would have been much better off traveling or committing some other violation than doing what he did.

To be fair, five of the turnovers came in the first third of the second half when Kentucky was rocked by a series of good plays by Louisville. The crowd got into it, and the Wildcats just fell apart a little. Given their relative youth and paucity of games played under riotous road conditions, you have to give them just a little bit of a break there. Yes, those turnovers contributed mightily to the Cardinals' victory, but they were almost inevitable against the outstanding, scrambling chaos Rick Pitino & Co. try to foist on their opponents. It's just the nature of the beast.

The reason turnovers matter so much for this team, and didn't bother the 2010 team as much, is due to one big thing: offensive rebounding. 2010 was an ungodly offensive rebounding team. They averaged almost 41% offensive rebounds, which offset the shot attempts they lost through turnovers. This team only rebounds the ball at 34% on the offensive glass, and thus, they must take better care of the ball in order to keep the other team from getting too many more shots than they do. As it was, Louisville got up 4 more shots than Kentucky did, and at 51% eFG, that's 4 more points.

Another "silver lining" was that Kentucky managed to get a lot of clean looks from 3 against the normally stingy Cardinals, and for once, they made them at a high rate. Kentucky's eFG% against Louisville was almost 57%, and that was over 6% better than Louisville. You don't normally lose games like that, and you have to applaud the offensive execution that produced those clean looks against a tough Cardinal defense.

Another thing Kentucky did well, comparatively, is rebound. UK actually won the offensive rebounding stat by a small amount. The problem is that in order to make up for the turnover deficit, which was considerable, the Wildcats needed closer to 40% OR than 30, and to keep Louisville about where they were. That didn't happen, and Louisville really helped themselves by taking great care of the ball.

Finally, there is the silver lining of free throw rate. Kentucky continues to get to the line a lot. On the downside, they then squander that benefit by missing them at an astonishing rate. It looks like UK and U of L are tied in that statistic, and they are, but that stat measures only getting to the line and doesn't consider whether or not the attempts are successful.

Kentucky made less than half their free throws, and combined with Louisville shooting their average from the line, 68%, that gave the Cardinals a big advantage. In terms of efficiency, the free throw line should be the most efficient place to score. It was for Louisville, but Kentucky actually shot better from the floor than from the line.

While it may look like we found more cloud than silver lining, that's always going to be the case when you lose. What the statistics don't, and aren't meant to tell us, is how hard Kentucky fought back from a 17 point deficit they found themselves in at 51-34 with 14:45 left in the game. The Wildcats reeled off 10 unanswered points after that, and had the game back under single digits with 13 minutes left in the game. From then on, it was a typical Kentucky-Louisville nip-and-tuck basketball game with UK getting within a basket with 5:32 left, but never able to get over the hump.

Kentucky lost this game for two reasons: Too many turnovers, and too many missed free throws. I don't think Kentucky is going to be a great offensive rebounding team this year, and I'll take the 32% if they can hold down the other team like they did Louisville, so Kentucky just has to minimize turnovers.

The Cards had a lot to say about the turnover stat, particularly in how they were able to minimize their turnovers. Honestly, though, I can think of at least four giveaways that were absolutely inexcusable by the 'Cats. As far as free throws are concerned, nobody defends you at the line. That was all on UK. It's not fair to say that Louisville didn't beat UK, and that UK lost it. But Kentucky had a lot more to do with their own demise than anyone should be comfortable with.

With all that said, there will never be a game until the NCAA tournament when Kentucky faces a team this tough combined with a crowd this intense. That gives us hope, because if the Wildcats can simply bring the level of intensity we saw in the last 15 minutes of this game to the rest of the season, an undefeated SEC campaign is not an impossible goal.

That's the biggest silver lining of all.