If Kentucky wants to take down the Louisville Cardinals on Friday, they’ll have to make some drastic improvements from their last performance.
While it has been an offseason of turmoil in Louisville, this Cardinals squad still contains a solid mix of experience and talent that make them a dangerous team and one that is more than capable of walking into Rupp Arena and pulling off the upset.
To avoid that from happening and for Kentucky to pick up a solid, resume-building non-conference win, there are three key areas of improvement that need to be seen in the game.
1. Perimeter Defense
It seems like this has been a problem the last two years. There were issues at the beginning and middle of last year with perimeter defense, as opposing guards and wings were able to get to the rim too easily sometimes. This year, it seems like some of the same issues are persisting. Last year’s squad was able to make some noticeable improvements down the stretch in that regard, and with the length that this year’s team has, they should be able to improve in that regard as well.
However, they’ll need to do it soon in order to contain the Cardinals’ perimeter players, which are the strength of their offense.
Three of Louisville’s top four scorers play on the perimeter in Deng Adel (15.6 ppg), Quentin Snider (12.3 ppg), and V.J. King (9.1 ppg).
You may remember Snider from his 22 points on 10-19 shooting performance last year that gave Louisville the victory in the KFC YUM! Center last season. Adel also played particularly well in last year’s matchup, scoring 18 points on 5-10 shooting.
All that being said, I’m sure the Louisville coaching staff has watched tape of Kentucky’s performance against UCLA and will look to exploit the Wildcats by creating situations for players like Snider and Adel to try to break down their guy off the dribble and get into the lane.
It will be up to guys like Quade Green, Shai-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, and Wenyen Gabriel to force tough perimeter shots for a Cardinals team that hasn’t shot the ball all that well from behind the arc (35.8 percent, 156th in the nation).
2. Perimeter Shooting
As a whole, I think this team has shot the ball a little better than I expected coming into the season. The Wildcats are shooting the three at a 36 percent clip, which isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but better than what a lot of fans expected coming in.
Diallo and Shai-Alexander have shot the ball better than expected, but against UCLA, the Wildcats struggled to hit perimeter jumpers outside of Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox, who was 2-5 from behind the arc.
To beat the Cardinals, Kentucky has to shoot better from behind the three-point line. They cannot afford another combined 1-9 from Diallo and Quade Green.
Louisville boasts one of the best shot-blockers, statistically, in the country in Anas Mahmoud, who is averaging more than 4 blocks per game. Mahmoud ranks second nationally in blocks per game and has five games so far with five blocks or more.
Along with Ray Spalding, who is averaging a more-than-respectable 2.3 blocks per game, the Cards’ big men are able to block and contest a lot of shots at the rim. Those looks will not come easy so Kentucky will have to be able to hit shots on the perimeter when their normal looks around the goal become more challenging.
3. More intensity/effort
I think this goes without saying, but there were several lapses in intensity during the UCLA game that Kentucky must improve on. Whether it be in defensive closeouts, rebounding, or going after loose balls, nothing will be handed to the Wildcats and they will have to put forth a maximum effort to pull out the win.
There aren’t a whole lot of excuses for being outrebounded by a UCLA team that was already thin in the frontcourt, so Kentucky will have to be active on defense and on the glass throughout the game to pick up the win.
It’s clear that this game is very important for Kentucky now, and for when tournament selection rolls around. If Kentucky improves on the perimeter on each side, and shows increased effort defensively and rebounding, I think they should be able to pull out a solid non-conference win.