Since before the NCAA tournament pairings were even announced I noticed a very predominant theme amongst the UofL fanbase: Please oh please put us anywhere, but don’t put us in the same region as Kentucky. Then of course after great Conference tournament runs by both the Cards and Cats respectively it looked less and less likely that the two bitter enemies would meet early on in the NCAAs if Bracketologists were correct.
Of course there is always that one wild card that you can never bet on. The NCAA Tournament Selection committee. Well that plucky group of administrators and decision makers decided to give the people what they didn’t want. A Tournament Bracket so regionalized that they literally shoehorned teams seemingly into where they wanted them based more on location than they did merits on the season. So immediately as the announcements for the Midwest Regional were announced EVERYONE looked to one possible matchup and one only and it was #4 Seed UofL and #8 Seed UK locking up for a “Dream Game” showdown in of all places Indianapolis. While there were several other compelling possible games the sheer possibility of seemingly the two hottest teams in the country sitting apart by a little over 70 miles from one another was too huge to ignore.
Now this time has arrived and instead of the Card Nation being excited about dismissing two extremely tough and physical teams en route to their 3rd straight Sweet 16 there is a much different feel. Dread. Of course the genesis of this comes in the form of their hated rival the University of Kentucky who knocked off the #1 Seed undefeated Wichita State to gain entrance to the second weekend of the tournament.
My question is why? This UofL team that stands before us not is night and day better than anything we saw the first 3 months of the season. There was always one thing that could be said about this Cardinal team is that they can score the basketball. Returning leading tournament scorer Russ Smith and Final Four MOP Luke Hancock as well as talented combo guard Chris Jones and Terry Rozier everyone knew from day one that this team could put the biscuit in the basket.
The numbers bear that out as well. Utilizing a great website for college basketball statistics ( http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/ ) we can see that UofL went from a team with and total offensive rating of 22nd (110.3) in the nation to a rating of 2nd (117.7) this year. That is important because with that type ability offensively you don’t have to be as good defensively as last year but the Cards still come in believe it or not with a better ranking of 2nd (87.9) in total defense over a rating of 4th (87.1) last year though overall the defensive numbers (lower numbers better) are not as good due to the new foul rules. These numbers are staggering and lead to why UofL is rated as the #1 team in the country with an SRS rating of 24.91 which considers both margin of victory AND STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE for those who like to use that argument.
Conversely lets look at UK who is a woefully inefficient team and not really great at anything outside being big. Offensively they come in with a total offensive rating of 45th (112.2) and more importantly a bad defensive rating of a 60th ranked (98.8). THIS is why Vegas, KenPom, and all you various projection sites love UofL to take care of business on Friday. The Wildcats struggle to get stops. You are bringing one of the worst defenses left in the tournament and matching against the best offense. Not a recipe for success as you move along in the tournament. The Wildcats are imposing physically and dominate on the backboards and that will not change vs UofL. That is how they score the points they get for the most part along with early transition opportunities. If they didn’t do that on Friday it would get very ugly so that is something Card fans just need to concede now. However that advantage may be their only one when you look at this matchup as a whole.
I will concede that UK is a bigger more athletic team but they have been that all year and still have 10 losses to show for it. Yes they have been playing with more energy and yes they had an outstanding offensive game due to their physical dominance vs Wichita State on Sunday. What about on the defensive end? Bad as the Shockers got pretty much any shot they wanted shooting 55% from the field and 48% from 3 pt range. What about their offensive output vs a good defensive Kansas State team that is smaller than UofL? Bad they shot 38% from the floor and 26% from 3 pt range. That is not a fluke that the Cats struggled much more vs. good defense. But consider that UofL is better on offense than Wichita State AND better on defense than Kansas State. That could spell big trouble for UK on Friday if this even comes close to following what it has been all year.
I could continue to look and numbers and bore you with stats and equations, but instead I will say this. This is the most basketball savvy state out there and we all know that in March victory comes down to experience, defense, good enough offense, and talent. Of those four determining factors UofL has a decided advantage in 3 of them and the numbers bear that out. UofL fans have plenty to hang their hat on heading into the big showdown and should be excited on apprehensive. And while this does not guarantee victory it certainly leans that way and clearly proves that “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”.
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