If the almighty powers of Kentucky Sports Radio keep this post at its regularly scheduled 4 pm time slot, we now find ourselves exactly 24 hours away from the most intense rivalry in college basketball. If those same powers decide to move it to a more convenient time, well, we still find ourselves pretty darn close to the annual event that not only destroys otherwise close friendships, but high-end electronics as well. Of course, being that most of us are from this great Commonwealth of Kentucky, we know the rivalry all too well. Not only are we the fans obsessed with the two squads, but the media in all its forms reminds us of every single trinket and factoid of relevant information about the rivalry. However, one aspect has been notably omitted throughout the fan obsession and media coverage. Of course, I’m talking about the numbers behind the contest. Given there hasn’t been much coverage on Louisville’s statistics, I took the liberty of doing the research to see where the Cardinals excelled and where they struggled.
Just two short years ago, Louisville’s offense finished 116th nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy and didn’t really look to improve that much in the immediate future. However, a meteoric rise in efficiency from Russ Smith and the entire cast of Cardinals ensured a 4th place finish in efficiency last season. Fast forward to the present day and Rick Pitino’s Cardinals find themselves ranked first nationally in offensive efficiency, scoring an average of 1.194 points every time they touch the ball. This rise in efficiency over the seasons is due in large part to the noticeable increase in offensive boards and the Titanic-like sinking in turnover percentage.
For Louisville, the offensive glass has been patrolled by two men in recent seasons, Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng, but this season has been a committee effort as the Cards have four players averaging at least 2.5 offensive boards per game. As I’m sure you can recall, Kentucky struggles keeping opponents off the glass, ranking 152nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. The other main reason for Louisville’s climb in efficiency has been the drastic reduction in turnovers. In the preseason, people wondered how two apparent shoot-first guards like Russ Smith and Chris Jones could interact in the same backcourt. The answer to that question is “very well”. Not only have duo have led the Cardinals to a second place national ranking in turnover percentage, but they’re also averaging a combined eight assists on the year. While turnovers and rebounding have improved drastically over the years, Louisville does have their offensive weaknesses.
Turnovers and rebounding have undoubtedly improved, but if you’re looking for a weakness in Louisville’s offense, it’ll come in the form of perimeter and free throw shooting. The weakness that I’m suggesting in perimeter shooting is only relative to the remainder of college basketball as Louisville is ranked 109th nationally. They’re clearly better than Kentucky in the same category and are connecting at a decent clip, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. However, their true Achilles heel comes from the charity stripe as they only connect on 65.5% of attempts. As bad as Kentucky has been from the line this season, Louisville has somehow managed to be worse. History says that free throws are a key factor in deciding this game, and believe it or not, the Cats should feel comfortable with Louisville at the line providing it isn’t one of their guards.
In terms of the four factors, the biggest historical trends in Rick Pitino’s defense over the years have been great field goal defense and intense pressure on ball handlers. Not only do the Cards force opponents to shoot 42.3% from the interior, but they also block a respectable five shots per game despite their lack of interior size. While they rank highly in both of these categories, these are areas where Kentucky excels offensively, ranking 20th and 23rd in 2-point field goal percentage and opponent blocks per game respectively. While the Cats hold an advantage in these categories, Louisville will have a notable edge in turnovers where they force an opponent mistake on 26.7% of possessions. Some may point to strength of schedule as to why the Cards are ranked that high in turnover percentage, but note that they finished the 2013 campaign forcing an opponent turnover on 27% of possessions, so this isn’t a fluke based on weakness of opponent. They’re able to accomplish such pressure with the quickness of Russ Smith and Chris Jones who are averaging around two steals per contest. Harrell, Blackshear, and Behanan are also averaging at least one steal per game. Kentucky ranks 190th in D-1 in turnover percentage, losing the ball on 18.8% of possessions.
One of the big themes in this week’s build-up to the annual clash has been something along the lines of “expect the unexpected.” While there’s always some uncertainty going into Calipari-Pitino UK-UofL match-ups, we’ve had a very good idea of which team should win beforehand, and that expectation has gone according to plan. However, this year, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens. While the unexpected is expected tomorrow, I do believe that free throws will play a crucial role in this contest. While that isn’t exactly groundbreaking analysis, the previous two Rupp Arena match-ups between Cards and Cats have seen a combined 60 and 70 attempts from the charity stripe respectively. Add in Tony Greene who was involved in 2010’s Kentucky-Louisville contest and you have a recipe for another unbearable foul-fest. Both teams are truly awful from the charity stripe, but if I had to guess, the winning team will be slightly less awful on the line at the end of tomorrow’s battle.