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Kentucky Basketball: How Fearsome is the Louisville Defense?

It is never correct to say that a team has made a Final Four run due to any one factor - sports are just too complicated for such overly simplistic narratives. Still, the biggest reason that Louisville is still playing in the tournament is defense. The Cardinals are the #1 ranked defense in efficiency thanks to the 3rd best eFG% defense and their skill at forcing turnovers (34th) (ranks according to KenPom).

When the Cats and Cardinals got together 3 months ago it was an ugly game from an offensive perspective. Kentucky was held to its worst Offensive Efficiency of the season, their worst shooting game, and one of their worst games in terms of committing turnovers. In short, Louisville's defense was able to impose its strengths on Kentucky's offense and keep the game close despite the Cardinals having a pretty awful game themselves on the offensive end.

Obviously much has changed since then. In particular the Cats have become a much, much better ball handling team. Prior to the UL game Kentucky had turned the ball over on 20% or more its possessions in 5 out of 13 games. After the Louisville game that happened 4 times out of 24 games, and 2 of those were the very next two games against Arkansas Little Rock and South Carolina.

Also, Terrence Jones had an injured finger which was affecting his ability to finish around the rim. That is no longer a concern.

Kentucky has an elite offense - they rank in the top 35 (90th percentile) in Division 1 in Effective FG%, Turnover %, Offensive Rebound %, and thanks to the last two games they've moved up to 45th in the country in Free Throw Rate. All of which got me to wondering - how has Louisville performed defensively in these areas when facing up against elite teams this year?

What I did was go through Louisville's schedule and find how many times they played a team which is ranked 35th or better in any of the 4 Factors on offense or in Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. I chose 35th as a cutoff point because it is roughly the 90th percentile mark in D1 basketball (342 teams). The following table shows how many games UL played against teams ranked 35th or better in each category:

Off. Eff eFG% TO% ORb% FT Rate
Teams faced 11 4 10 12 0

So Louisville has played 11 games against teams ranked in the top 35 in Offensive Efficiency, 4 against teams ranked in the top 35 in eFG%, etc. As you can see, Louisville did not face any top teams in FT Rate, something that I think has more to do with the category than it does the schedule. The highest rated team in this area faced by UL was Kentucky.

Note that some of these games were against the same opponent, for example Syracuse represents 2 of the 11 games in Offensive Efficiency. Kentucky is the only team in the top 35 in all 4 nonzero categories. Florida (OE, eFG, TO%) and Syracuse (OE, TO, ORb) are in 3 apiece.

How did the Cardinals defense perform against these teams?

Opponents Offense Eff eFG% TO% ORb%
On Average 115.1 54.2 16.6 37.9
versus UL 90.5 44.1 19.0 36.1
Retrodicted 95.9 48.0 19.0 39.6

The first line shows the composite average for the teams that were ranked in each category. That is, it's the average Efficiency for teams ranked in Efficiency, the average eFG% for teams ranked in eFG%, etc. The second line shows how the teams did when they played Louisville. Not surprisingly, the numbers are all worse than average which is to be expected given the Cardinals' elite defense.

The last line is a "retrodiction" for the games. That is, it uses the season average for the opponents and Louisville to make a prediction of what the outcome would be in each category. I included this as a reference - it helps to have some idea of how we might expect these games to turn out based on the quality of the teams.

You can see that the predicted values are all reasonably close to what actually happened. In short, while the Louisville defense did better than what a best guess might predict, it was still in the neighborhood for all categories.

What might we expect for Saturday's game? There is no way to know for sure of course. I think UK will fair much, much better offensively than in the first game. Rick Pitino has a full week to prepare though and it would be most unwise to underestimate this Cardinal defense.

Rather than give a guess, I'll give a benchmark in each category: If UK meets or exceeds these marks on offense they will almost certainly win the game.

Off. Eff eFG% TO% ORb% FT Rate
UK Offense 123.1 53.8 16.9 37.9 41.9
UL Defense 84.0 42.9 23.1 33.7 34.2
Benchmark 102.6 47.7 19.3 39.6 39.6