1. Matchup nightmare
The best player for these Louisville Cardinals is junior forward Jordan Nwora. Nwora leads the team in scoring and is 18th in the country at 21.2 points per contest. He is second on the team in rebounds at 7.5 per game and first in steals at 1.1 per game. A knockdown shooter from the perimeter, Nwora hits 41.4% of his three-point shots, to go along with an 80.4% clip at the free throw line.
The problem for Kentucky is that Nwora stands at 6’7″ and 225 pounds, with the ability to play both on the perimeter and in the paint. Kentucky’s best lineup has three guards (Hagans, Maxey, and Quickley), however, all three of those guards give up a distinct size advantage to a great scorer and rebounder. The “best” match up for Kentucky, and I say best in quotes because it hasn’t come to fruition this season, is Kahlil Whitney. His size and athleticism should give the ability to defend Nwora; however, we’ve seen that his defense has been the worst on the team so far this season. Finding a way to slow Nwora down will be a key to a potential Kentucky victory this afternoon.
2. Defensive juggernaut
The strength for the Louisville Cardinals this season has been their ability to defend at an extremely high rate. Allowing just 58.4 points per game, the Cards rank 15th in scoring defense in the country. For comparison, Ohio State ranks 10th and allows just one point less, at 57.4 points per contest. Louisville doesn’t force a ton of turnovers, just 11.3 per game, which ranks 338th in the country, but they keep their opponents off the scoreboard which is the name of the game.
Chris Mack’s squad is third in the nation in opponent field goal percentage, allowing their foes to hit just 35% of their shots, just 0.8% from first in the country Virginia. More so, Louisville ranks second in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. Lastly, the Cards only allow teams to shoot 26.7% from three on the year, which ranks in the top 15 in the country.
3.Threes before frees
We’ve seen Kentucky match up against a variety of solid three-point shooting teams already this season, and Louisville is no different. As a team, the Cardinals knock down nearly 38% of their three-point shots, with three players shooting over 41% on the season. Louisville takes an average of 21.3 shots from deep per game, making around nine of those attempts. Louisville has actually attempted more threes than they have free throws on the season, with 255 attempts from three and 225 attempts from the charity stripe.
The best shooters on this Louisville team are all in the starting lineup. I touched on Nwora’s abilities at 41.4% on the season, which is actually third-best on the team. Leading the team is senior guard Ryan McMahon, who is somehow STILL at Louisville in what has to be his 37th season for the Cards. McMahon hits 46.3% of his threes, while senior forward Dwayne Sutton knocks down 41.7% of his threes.
4. Point guard problems
The glaring advantage on paper going into today’s game against the Dirty Birds is Kentucky’s guard play in comparison to Louisville’s guard struggles. Everyone knows the strength for Kentucky is the offensive and defensive ability of the three talented guards, Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, and Immanuel Quickley. Coincidentally, the glaring weakness in the Louisville lineup right now is the lack of strong guard play.
Darius Perry starts at the point for the Cardinals, averaging just 5.8 points and 4.6 assists per game, with 2.3 turnovers. Starting at the two guard is Ryan McMahon, who is almost exclusively a three-point shooter. McMahon has only attempted 15 two-point field goals all season, while having attempted 67 three-pointers. McMahon is certainly not a true point guard and the thought of Hagans defending him as a primary ball-handler would be a nightmare for Louisville. That leaves the back up point guard duties to Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble. Kimble is a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s, but has not had the same type of success at Louisville that he saw earlier in his college career. Kimble is averaging 4.3 points and 2.9 assists in almost 19 minutes of action per game, while knocking down just 3 of his 14 threes on the season.
5. One-sided rivalry
Folks around the state of Kentucky, and even some national media members, will call today’s game the best rivalry in college basketball. Unfortunately, I have some news for those people, they’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why. A rivalry is mostly a great rivalry if it is an even match up a majority of the time, and Kentucky has dominated this rivalry in basketball for the entirety of the time is has existed. An overall record of 36-16 against the Cards, Kentucky is 10-2 since Calipari took over in Lexington. In the “modern era”, since Louisville fans like to use that term to talk about the football history between the schools, Kentucky is 27-13 against Louisville.
There’s a reason Kentucky is slightly favored in this game, despite being in the midst of a two-game skid and showing obvious signs of offensive struggle. Louisville hasn’t won at Rupp Arena since 2008 when Billy G was in Lexington, and only twice total in the last 20 years. Kentucky’s won three times at Louisville just since Calipari arrived in the rivalry. Does Louisville take the occasional win? Sure. Do the Cards keep the rivalry anywhere close to even? Not a chance.
Go Cats. Beat Cards.