The annual game that divides friends and families around the Commonwealth is around 44 hours away (at the time of this posting) and anticipation is beginning to build. Both sides have had the entire week off from games to celebrate the Christmas holiday and to prepare themselves properly for a game that is sure to be a war. Preparation including defensive schemes for a Louisville offense ranked 18th nationally in Adjusted Offense according to Kenpom.com. This is certainly different from last season which saw a very different Cardinal team (ranked 103rd in the same category) that couldn’t put anything together offensively for a vast majority of the season. John Calipari and his defense will assuredly have their work cut out for them come Saturday, but they have faced three teams in Baylor, Notre Dame, and Duke, which have similarly rated offenses in comparison to Louisville. These teams have undoubtedly helped Kentucky’s young players prepare for a significantly improved Louisville offense, but it’s anyone’s guess to how they’ll react in a vicious environment that craves a victory over their arch-rival.
First and foremost, the player that needs to be stopped above all others is Senior point guard, Peyton Siva. Whatever metaphor for a point guard you like to use like “the straw that stirs the drink” or “the head of the snake” is certainly applicable here. Siva is the head of Louisville’s offense and sets up the Cardinal attack with his excellent court vision. Through 12 games he’s averaging 6.3 assists per game which places him in three-way tie for 18th nationally. In addition to his excellent distributing ability, he has drastically improved his shooting percentages from previous years. His field goal, three point, and free throw shooting percentages are all up from last season. Additionally, his turnover rate is at a career low.
The second major source of Louisville’s offense is leading scorer, Russ Smith. Unlike last season where he maintained the “shoot now ask questions never” mindset, this year he…well he still does that, but he does it much more efficiently. Like Siva, Smith’s field goal, three point, and free throw shooting percentages have risen from the 2011-12 season. The biggest reason for improvement is his two point shooting percentage, rising from 37.9% last season to 49.5% this season. Such a drastic increase is forcing opponents to guard him on all spots of the floor, not just the perimeter. It’s not only his shooting that has improved either, he has more rebounds and assists teammates on more shots than last season as well.
Complimenting Louisville’s guards is the brawn inside the perimeter; Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrel, and evidently Gorgui Dieng. The trio have combined to shoot a very respectable 54.7% from the interior (99-181) and have also combined to pull down 80 offensive boards. In fact, offensive rebounding is the key to Louisville’s 18th rated offense. In terms of rebounding percentage, which tracks percentage of available rebounds obtained, the Cardinals rank 16th nationally. While the problem of allowing teams to gain offensive boards at a high rate has diminished for Kentucky since the initial early season games, this has tremendous potential to be an issue on Saturday given their almost innate ability to gather second chance opportunities.
While the Cardinals improved shooting and rebounding is concerning for Kentucky, something else that needs to be addressed is the matter of defending Peyton Siva. In previous seasons, Calipari had great versatility on his roster in terms of who could guard Siva. Long and athletic guards/wings like John Wall, DeAndre Liggins, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have all split time guarding the head of Louisville’s offense and did so with great success. This year who steps up and takes out Siva? Harrow? Goodwin? Possibly Mays? While those three have their individual strengths on defense, are they as talented in defending like the previously mentioned three? It’s safe to assume that very few, if any, would say that, but Goodwin may be the best option for this quandary given his athleticism. These are certainly all interesting hypothetical situations, but none of us really have an answer. Only the game itself can answer these questions.