Following matchups with Kansas (three titles), North Carolina (five) and Indiana (five), the Wildcats will play host to the Louisville Cardinals (two national championships) in their second-to-last game before Southeastern Conference play begins at noon on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
UK has two wins in three tries against those schools with national championship pedigrees, but the intrigue surrounding Saturday's game has little to do with any of that.
No matter the records of the two teams, the rankings or even the sport, UK-UofL always means something, but with both the Cardinals and Cats having just one loss as the calendar gets ready to flip to 2012 and both ranked in the top four nationally, this should be a fun one.
As we often do with a big UK game on the horizon, we turn to the statistics. I'll be relying heavily on Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats, so brace yourself for a bunch of numbers.
Before I get into the offensive and defensive matchups, let's talk pace. When many fans think about John Calipari and Rick Pitino, the first things that come to mind are intense defense and an up-and down style. There's no question the Cats and Cards will get after it defensively, but hold on for a moment before you get too excited about a potential track meet on Saturday.
In terms of pace of play, Kentucky has averaged 70.7 possessions per game, 49th-most in the nation. Louisville, on the other hand, averages just 68.3 possessions per game, 141st-most nationally. Of course, the two teams will take advantage of open floor opportunities when they are there, but they also are unafraid of grinding it out in close games.
The Cardinals have played three games decided by five points or less. In those games, UofL has averaged just 63 possessions per game. To prove Kentucky's willingness to slow it down, look no further than the last top-five matchup in Rupp Arena. In spite of facing one of the nation's fastest-paced teams in North Carolina, the game featured just 65 possessions for the two teams.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at how the Cats and Cards stack up on each side of the floor:
Kentucky offense vs. Louisville defense
The defensive end is where Louisville makes its hay and the numbers bear that out. The Cardinals rank as the nation's seventh-best team in terms of adjusted defense according to kenpom.com. So, what's been their recipe for allowing just 0.84 points per possession this season?
As has been the case dating back to his day's at Providence and Kentucky, it all begins with ball pressure for Pitino's team. The Cardinals, using pressure in the full and half court with some zone sprinkled in, force turnovers on well over one-quarter of their opponents' possessions, ranking 11th in the nation in that category. Considering that turnovers have been somewhat of a bugaboo for the Wildcats, this is unquestionably a concerning area.
UK is just 171st in the NCAA in turnover percentage at 21.1 and has given the ball away even more frequently against quality opponents. In the Cats' four games decided by 10 points or less, they have averaged 16.5 turnovers, nearly three over their season average of 13.7. Pitino will be turning up the heat on Marquis Teague and UK's other ball handlers and how they respond could go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.
The Cardinals' other area of strength on defense is contesting shots, as they rank 21st in the country in effective field goal percentage at 42.2. UofL is particularly adept at defending inside the 3-point line, as teams are shooting just 37.9 percent from 2-point range. However, Louisville is just 225th in the country in 3-point defense, meaning UK's long-range bombers could have a big day.
The three Wildcats who have attempted the most 3's this season (Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer) have combined to hit 17-of-38 (44.7 percent) shots from deep over the last three games, so they could be getting hot at the right time. However, other players like Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis could be tempted into taking some of those long-range shots and will need to remain disciplined.
UK could also have an advantage on the offensive glass. The Wildcats, led by Davis, have been good in pursuing their misses this season and the Cardinals haven't consistently closed out possessions well with rebounds, ranking 129th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. UK will have an advantage in size at most positions, as well as athleticism, so second-chance baskets could be a boost for the Cats.
The Wildcats could also do some damage at the free throw line. UK has shot 70 combined free throws in its last two outings, shooting 78.6 percent. The Cardinals have fouled on a frequent basis this season and are ranked just 181st in the country in defensive free throw rate.
More than anything else, UK's offense will have to avoid creating easy opportunities for Louisville by committing turnovers, because the Cardinals offense could have trouble scoring in the half court, as I'm about to explain.
Kentucky defense vs. Louisville offense
Through much of the early portion of their schedule, the Cardinals have relied on their elite defense to carry an inconsistent offense. Louisville has tallied just 1.05 points per possession so far this season, ranking 69th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.
With the way Louisville gets after it on defense, there will likely be periods on Saturday when Kentucky will struggle to score the ball. However, there's a reasonable chance that the Wildcats' defense could cause even more problems for the UofL offense.
UK's defense is fifth-best in the nation according to kenpom.com, allowing 0.84 points per possession (coincidentally, identical to UofL's defense). The Wildcats are the nation's second-best team at defending opponents from the field, allowing an effective field goal percentage of just 40.0. Louisville, on the other hand, has struggled shooting the ball at times, hitting just 43.9 percent of its shots.
Louisville has been particularly ineffective from 3-point range, shooting just 32.1 percent from beyond the arc. The Cardinals don't have a single player hitting 40 percent from deep, but that doesn't mean they're not capable of getting hot. Senior Kyle Kuric can be especially deadly from the corner, so UK will need to be aware of him. Manhattan transfer Chris Smith has been Pitino's best long-range shooter, hitting 19-of-48 (39.6 percent) attempts.
The one thing UofL does do exceptionally well on offense is rebound. The Cardinals grab nearly 40 percent of their own misses, ranking 21st in the country in that category. UK has been above average in terms of defensive rebounding, but has allowed double-digit offensive rebounds in all but one game this season. According to Calipari, the Wildcats have too often relied on Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to grab defensive rebounds and failed to fulfill box-out assignments. More than anyone else, UK will need to get a body on sophomore center Gorgui Dieng, who is the nation's 11th-best offensive rebounder, claiming 17.6 percent of his team's misses when he's on the floor.
Though he hasn't shot well this season, UofL's most important offensive player is junior guard Peyton Siva. The 5-foot-11 Siva uses his quickness and surprising physicality to penetrate almost at will and create shots for himself and his teammates. He is averaging 6.4 assists per game and has had three nine-assist performances already this season. Calipari opted to use DeAndre Liggins, his best perimeter defender, to slow Siva down a season ago, so don't be surprised if he does the same this year with Kidd-Gilchrist.
If UK is able to contain Siva, rebound well and keep Louisville cold from the outside, the Wildcats could win this game even if the offense is limited by a strong Cardinal defense.