Here are some key questions that will determine who wins the next matchup in this storied rivalry.
Who wins the Deng Adel vs. Kevin Knox battle?
These guys have been the best players on their respective teams and play the same position. A look at the numbers:
The stats are nearly identical, but Adel is a significantly better defender at this point – he’s also two years older, and chances are, Knox will have made clear defensive progress by March.
But Adel is a long and rude defender, and he’s more likely to give Knox trouble on defense than vice versa when Louisville plays man-to-man. That said, Knox has a higher ceiling in general – at 6-foot-9 with plus athleticism and a smooth stroke, he’s the prototypical forward in today’s game. Playing at Rupp Arena helps. This Kentucky team doesn’t have the caliber of blue-chipper Wildcat fans are accustomed to, but Knox is the closest thing they’ve got. He’s a good player right now; he’s an awesome player in theory.
Adel has also propped up a Louisville offense that’s otherwise struggled – the Cardinals rank 60th on that end. So if he has a bad game, the Cardinals probably don’t have a chance. If Knox has an off day, Kentucky has more places to turn to – though, granted, the Wildcats aren’t exactly swimming in depth themselves.
Which Quentin Snider shows up?
After a horrid start, Snider has played better as of late – he’s shot better than 60 percent in three of his last five games, and has scored in double figures in all five.The biggest reason why Kentucky has looked a little ‘off’ thus far is because it doesn’t have a standout point guard. That’s unusual for a John Calipari team. Go down the list: Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis, John Wall, De’Aaron Fox. The Wildcats don’t have that kind of guy this season – Quade Green is solid, but he’s not transcendent.
So Snider, a senior, should give Louisville a clear edge at that position. But he’s thrown up his fair share of duds – in his first five games of the season, he shot 29.5 percent. He’s been excellent during Louisville’s six-game winning streak, but the best opponent the Cards have faced in that span is Indiana. Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander aren’t stars, but they’ll present a much tougher challenge than those teams.
Snider is a veteran, and is going against a team of freshmen. It’s time for him to go off.
Can Kentucky clean the defensive glass?
Shockingly, Kentucky ranks 229th in defensive rebounding rate – the Wildcats are allowing opponents to collect 31 percent of their own misses. UCLA manhandled them on the boards in Saturday’s game.
That can’t happen against Louisville, which retrieves 33.5 percent of its own misses. Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding impose their will more with length and springiness than brute force, but if they crash the glass against Nick Richards and P.J. Washington, they have a chance to earn the Cardinals more possessions. Kentucky isn’t just young – it’s about as young as a team can possibly get. Therefore, the Wildcats don’t really box out – Richards and Washington are good athletes, but they’re not amazing ones. Explosiveness, alone, isn’t going to solve their rebounding woes anyway. They need to body foes up.
The Cardinals aren’t a very good shooting team. They rank 124th in effective field goal percentage. Rebounds will be available on that end, and Kentucky needs to gobble up a higher portion than it has thus far.
Can Kentucky take care of the ball?
Back to the Wildcats’ point guard woes – they’re turning the ball over on 20.6 percent of their possessions, which ranks 253rd. But that’s not all Green and Gilgeous-Alexander. Washington, a power forward, is turning it over 2.5 times per game – the ball is not in his hands enough to justify coughing it up that often.
Kentucky has shot better lately – it takes very few 3s, but the Wildcats are making 36 percent of them, a reasonable clip. Maximize their possessions with defensive rebounding and limiting turnovers, and the offense will take off. Knox and Hamidou Diallo form one of the best wing duos in the country; Diallo is improving rapidly. He’s raw, but has a chance to become a difference-maker by March.
Louisville ranks 16th on defense, but the Cards rank 115th in opposing turnover rate. David Padgett has implemented more of a conservative style, and it’s worked. But this opponent may call for more traps, pressing and gambling in passing lanes.
Keep an eye on this statistic throughout the game.
Who wins the battle of Mahmoud vs. Kentucky drivers?
Green, Diallo, Knox and the emerging Richards can all do damage on the interior – but Louisville has an intimidating pair of shot-blockers, as it always seems to.
Mahmoud is averaging 4.2 (!) blocks per game, and he only averages 26 minutes. Spalding, his frontcourt partner, is averaging 2.3 – that would lead most teams. Padgett can play an elite rim-protector for 40 minutes, and has the luxury of playing them together. The easiest way to beat the Louisville defense is to go over it, not through it.
That said, Diallo is one of the best athletes in the country, and Knox has the physical tools and craft to take on any shot-swatter. The key for Kentucky ball-handlers: be persistent. Mahmoud and Spalding will rack up some blocks. So what? If they fly out of bounds, no harm. Keep attacking, and get those guys in foul trouble. Mahmoud with two fouls in the second half is a lot more dangerous than Mahmoud with four fouls in the second half.
Final score prediction: Kentucky 74, Louisville 71. Despite the Wildcats’ youth, it’s tough to pick against the home team with no obvious advantage on either side.