The annual game that separates an entire Commonwealth from a city by the Ohio River is nearly upon us. For a few hours in time, everybody takes a side, either blue or red, and roots like crazy for their team to come out on top. Recently, the blue side has been much happier than its red counterpart; taking the last four in the series, one of which en route to a national title. Yes, Kentucky has had much more to cheer about lately, but this year the red clad rival has looked superior. Louisville has cruised to an 11-1 record in the non-conference portion of their schedule, only stumbling to the highly rated Blue Devils of Duke. This record, like previous seasons, has been accomplished in typical Rick Pitino style; with a tenacious defense that is notorious for forcing turnovers. The Cardinal defense, which is the most efficient nationally according to Kenpom.com, has forced nearly every team to be highly uncomfortable throughout the season. This begs the all important question, how will Kentucky’s young players react?
Louisville’s biggest advantage in Saturday’s game will be their ability to force turnovers. Through 12 games, the Cardinals are forcing opponents to turn the ball over on 30.8% of their possessions, which ranks them first nationally, ahead of Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams (29.5%). To put that in more basic terms, Louisville would hypothetically force around 22 turnovers in a 70 possession game, which is terrifying to any team without competent ball handlers. This tenacious pressure is primarily created by their guards, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. On the season, they’re respectively forcing steals on 4.6 and 5.9 percent of their opponent’s possessions. Or in per game terms, 2.3 and 2.8 respectively. These steals are also more valuable than a typical steal given the location on the floor. Since these two are often so far from the basket while forcing turnovers, it often leads to an uncontested two at the opposite end of the floor, creating a highly efficient offense.
Luckily for Kentucky, we’ve demonstrated the ability to maintain possession of the ball at a high rate offensively. Through 11 games, Kentucky has only lost the ball to turnovers on 17.5% of possessions (31st nationally). Or in 70 possessions, that’d be around 12 turnovers. This has been accomplished by multiple players, but mainly Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow. The pair both rank inside the national top-125 in turnover rate. Mays, largely a spot up shooter, has, however, demonstrated the ability to advance the ball in times where he is a primary ball handler, only losing possession 11.4% of the time (1 per game). Harrow, now the team’s primary ball handler and distributor, only loses the ball on 9.3% of possessions (.7 per game). Both numbers are encouraging, but Archie Goodwin is somewhat of a question mark in this department. He turns the ball over on 20.6% of personal possessions (3.3 per game), which sounds alarming, but Archie uses far more possessions than any player on Kentucky’s roster. To put that Turnover Percentage number in perspective, Goodwin has a lower turnover rate than did Marquis Teague, John Wall, and Eric Bledsoe. His per game turnovers are so high because he possesses the ball at a much higher rate than do his teammates. Of course, it remains to be seen how any of these players will react to such an active defense.
The biggest advantage the Cards hold over Kentucky is the ability to force turnovers at a high rate. This can certainly shift the outcome of the game in Louisville’s favor, but only if Kentucky allows that to occur. Something that has sunk so many of Louisville’s early season opponents (other than obvious talent discrepancy) is the ability to quickly change the score with turnovers. If Kentucky were to slow the game to a more deliberate half court pace, the impact that turnovers can potentially have will be diminished significantly. Much of Louisville’s offense comes from their defensive pressure, so if Kentucky’s guards can limit turnovers, we could be in for a more competitive game than the computers and odds-makers think.