Louisville will be Kentucky's toughest test on the road to perfection
Kentucky’s win over UCLA added more fuel to the most compelling storyline in college basketball this season. The Wildcats opened on a 24-0 run, took a 41-7 at halftime on the Bruins and went on to win by 39 points. Kentucky shot 50 percent from the field and 46 percent from three-point range, limited UCLA to 19-of-71 shooting and blocked nearly a quarter of their two-point field goal attempts. The Wildcats thoroughly outclassed a storied, blueblood program expected to finish in the top half of a major conference.
The performance furthered the belief -- which began picking up steam after a 32-point win over then-No. 5 Kansas last month -- that Kentucky will run the table this season. For those still pushing back against the undefeated talk, Bruins coach Steve Alford articulated why it’s a distinct possibility. “There's not a weakness on the team,” Alford said afterward. “It is, it wasn't a fun team for me to watch today, but I'll enjoy watching it the rest of the season, because it's good basketball that's really well coached with really good players.”
If Kentucky does lose this season, there’s a good chance it will happen on Saturday at No. 4 Louisville. Like the No. 1 Wildcats, the No. 4 Cardinals enter this game with an undefeated record (11-0), having knocked off three KenPom top-50 squads (Minnesota, Ohio State and Indiana). Coach Rick Pitino’s team excels at stopping opponents: It ranks second in the nation in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, fourth in block percentage, sixth in effective field goal percentage defense and seventh in turnover percentage.
The Cardinals also feature one of the top big men in the nation in Montrezl Harrell, a projected first-round draft pick. Harrell was suspended for Louisville’s win over Cal State Northridge on Tuesday after he was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and ejected from the previous game, against Western Kentucky. The Cardinals are fortunate to have Harrell back against Kentucky; without him, it would have been extremely difficult to match up with Kentucky in the frontcourt. Even with Harrell available, Louisville probably won’t get many clean looks around the basket against a team with five rotation players who stand at least 6-foot-9 -- including one, seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who can guard several positions.
The Wildcats have blocked a higher percentage (24) of two-point field goal attempts than any team in the country and are allowing opponents to shoot only 41.8 percent at the rim, according to hoop-math.com. Given Kentucky’s ability to challenge shots around the basket and lock down inside the three-point line -- opponents are shooting a nation-low 31.6 percent on their twos -- Louisville may need to consider taking more three-point shots than is typical. However, only 25.4 percent of the Cardinals’ points have come on treys this season, good for 254th in the country, per KenPom, and Louisville is shooting only 29.0 percent (303rd) on their long-range attempts.
One source of encouragement for Louisville is the recent play of Terry Rozier. Over the last five games, the 6-foot-1 guard has knocked down 10 of his 23 three-point tries and is shooting 53 percent from the field. The Cardinals will need Rozier, seniors Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear and others to provide a perimeter complement to Harrell. Perhaps even more important for Louisville will be whether it can disrupt Kentucky with its press and force turnovers to create scoring opportunities in transition. This will save the Cardinals from having to attack Kentucky in a half-court setting, where it is allowing only 0.59 points per possession, according to data from Synergy Sports.
Louisville may have the defensive chops to shut down Kentucky, but the Wildcats have added a new dimension to their offense over the last two games. Kentucky is shooting 19-of-41 from three-point range, nearly 15 percentage points higher than its season average of 31.4, which ranks 244th nationally. Freshman guard Devin Booker has been particularly hot, having connected on eight of his nine treys. The Wildcats can score inside the arc and create second-chance opportunities by grabbing 45.5 percent of their misses, the second highest-percentage in the country. Adding reliable three-point shooting to the mix could stretch opposing defenses to their breaking point.
The potentially frustrating part for Louisville, and the other teams remaining on Kentucky’s schedule, is that the Wildcats are versatile enough to win in multiple ways. For Louisville, putting the clamps on Kentucky may not be enough to pull the upset. “I really think this is a team that if you guard them well and they score 50 points and shoot 20 percent from the field, they still beat you because they hold you to 35,” Alford said. “I just think that's their makeup.”
If Kentucky beats Louisville, expect the undefeated chatter to ramp up even more -- for good reason. This is the Wildcats’ first true road game this season and it is clearly their most difficult matchup on the schedule. It’s possible Kentucky could slip up against an inferior opponent in SEC play; avoiding a single listless performance over the course of the conference season will prove challenging. But if the Wildcats can escape the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday with a win, their quest for perfection will feel more realistic.