UK-UofL, Part 3: The actual 40 minutes

There’s been countless words said about the meaning of the rivalry, and what the game means, and what meaning can be derived from the matchup. But there’s also the 94-by-50 foot box of hardwood on which the game is actually played. Here’s some things to watch for in the game, in no particular order.

*** Depth for both teams is now an issue — Louisville had an advantage in this category a little bit ago, and it was supposed to be one of the main things the Cards had going for them. They have nine players averaging more than 14 minutes per game, while UK has six.

However, that surplus has been negated with recent injuries to Louisville. Mike Marra (9.3 ppg, most 3-point attempts on team) and Elisha Justice (15.5 minutes off the bench) were known to be out, and today Rick Pitino announced Rakeem Buckles (8.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg) will miss the game against UK. Those are solid contributors that Louisville lost, and one big man on the eve of the game. Pitino said Louisville would be affected physically, but not mentally, because they are used to losing players at this point. That’s what it’s come to for Louisville. They’re used to players going down.

So now both teams will be playing with relatively short rotations, leading to the next thing.

*** Inducing, and avoiding, foul trouble — This has been a familiar refrain for UK all season long. And for good reason: foul trouble severely hampered UK against North Carolina, which has been the most comparable to what UK will face Friday in terms of atmosphere and physicality (although not in size, as UNC’s big men were better than Louisville’s).

And now Louisville joins them in needing to avoid seeing critical players forced to the bench due to foul trouble.

“We’re both undermanned a little bit,” Calipari said. “We’re both limited. They got two or three guys, where if they’re out, that team’s totally different. We’re the same way.”

The atmosphere could have an impact on this game; both teams are expecting a hard-fought, physical game, and if fouls are a little tighter adjustments will have to be made.

“With all the TV timeouts, in terms of fatigue, no,” Pitino said in an online press conference, regarding whether the short depth would be a problem. “In terms of foul trouble, yes.”

*** New defenses a possibility — Against Coppin State, UK used a zone defense early in the second half, for a substantial amount of possessions. It was the second time this year, with a game in Maui being the other, that UK went to a zone on defense. The one employed against Coppin State looked like a hybrid 3-2 and 2-3, with Harrellson starting up top and sliding down into the post when the ball was on the side. UK at times looked like it had no idea what was going on, with rotations missed and shooters left open. Other times, their length combined to create turnovers, and a zone has the added benefit of helping players stay out of foul trouble.

“Maybe we want the game to be slower, do what Drexel did,” Calipari said, referring to Drexel slowing the game down en route to handing Louisville its only loss, a slow-paced 52-46 game. “So maybe we play zone. But we’ll see.”

Playing a zone does have a tendency to leave the perimeter open, especially with a team this young and this unused to playing a zone. And with Louisville, that is not a good thing, as evidenced by the next section.

*** Shooting — Both teams have had hot shooting the nights the past two games, especially from the outside. On the year, both teams have been shooting well, with Louisville at 48 percent and UK at 46 percent. From three, UK is shooting 41 percent and Louisville is shooting 37 percent.

However, this game doesn’t historically feature good shooting, as shown by John Clay’s research. Louisville has failed to shoot 40 percent overall in three of the last five years. Still, Calipari expects Louisville to come out firing from deep — he tossed out 30 as a number to expect.

“Some of it, you’re doing the best you can, but they’re teardrops that hit the light and its going in,” Calipari said.

Both defenses know this, and neither team is likely to get as good of outside looks as they have seen in recent games against lesser opponents. If one team is burying shots, though — or even if one player, like Doron Lamb — it could swing the game.

*** Small lineup — Coppin State turned into an experimental game for UK. They tried the zone defense, as noted previously. And they also used the small lineup extensively, for the first time since early in the year that it was intentionally used. And it performed: the lineup played the first seven minutes of the second half, and it built on the 29-point halftime lead. With Louisville lacking a dominant post presence, having Terrence Jones in the post wouldn’t be detrimental; in fact, it could pose an advantageous matchup for UK.

“I love it,” Jones said of the small lineup. “Posting up, getting the ball, and having all shooters around me, and they’re all knockdown, unselfish shooters.”

The small lineup allows UK to switch virtually everytime on defense, which eliminates the Cats from getting burned by pick-and-rolls, which have been troublesome at time. And on offense, it is a lineup seemingly created for dribble-drive.

“Everybody can put it on the floor and get to the basket, no matter who it is,” Brandon Knight said. “In that dribble drive, you go man (defense), everyone can get in the paint and score or find the open man.”

*** The start of the game — The Yum! Center will be rocking, especially in the opening minutes. Everybody knows it. It’s the first UK-Louisville game played in the brand new arena, and the crowd is going to get loud. Being able to maintain composure and play well in the opening minutes can only help, although that admittedly is ultimately only part of the picture.

“It’s going to be a 40-minute game, one way or the other,” Calipari said, noting that no matter if one team jumps ahead, there will still be time for the other to make it up.

And while that’s true, it most definitely (and obviously) would not be beneficial to fall into a quick hole with a team not used to climbing out of them. The only large deficit UK has faced was against Connecticut, and the Cats were never able to even mount a comeback.

*** Getting out on the fast break — Even though UK has talked about using the zone and possibly needing to slow the game down, Pitino expected both teams to do what they like to — run.

“I think both teams are going to try to run, get easy baskets,” Pitino said. “(UK is) very fast in the open court, and now, they shoot it really well. At multiple positions. It makes it even more difficult than last year.”

Calipari pegged transition defense as a key to the game.

“For both teams, (transition defense) will be one of the two or three keys to the game,” Calipari said. “Because both of us play really fast and both of us probably need work in that area.”

*** The players — Louisville is led by guards Preston Knowles (15.2 ppg) and Peyton Siva (11.5 ppg). Both are the “major contributors” of the team, as defined by possession percentage.

“I know Preston had 30 (points) the other night, so it’s important to slow him down,” Darius Miller said. “But we can’t just focus on one guy. We have to guard everybody.”

The Cardinals don’t have a dominant front court, which is what gave UK fits against North Carolina. Terrence Jennings is averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds, and with Buckles out, Gorgui Dieng (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) will have to quickly assume a heavier workload. UK’s Josh Harrellson has recently displayed an effective enough game that could match up fine against Louisville. The rebounding battle will be key. UK has the edge, getting 54 percent of total rebounds per game, and with Buckles out it should be easier for UK to crash the boards — and the new arena in the first rivalry game played there.