For one week every basketball season, that emotion consumes an entire state. This season, UK-U of L occupies center stage for a second week, this time in the crucible that is the Final Four.
However, for the purposes of this piece, I'm going to try to make like John Calipari and focus on Kentucky-Louisville as a basketball game and a basketball game alone. Like any other game, there will be five players in white uniforms and five players in colored uniforms (though the uniforms the Cardinals will wear are slightly brighter than normal), and those 10 players will accumulate statistics. And if you don't know how much I love statistics, you surely don't visit this website very often.
So, I'm going to take my best shot at previewing UK-U of L by the numbers.
Let me preface everything I say by telling you this could be an utterly fruitless endeavor. Why? Because the first matchup between the Wildcats and Cardinals in Rupp Arena was one of the most bizarre basketball games I've ever seen, and looking at the box score is the first place you should look for a reminder.
First off, UK won the game 69-62 in spite of shooting 29.8 percent from the field and committing a season-high-tying 21 turnovers. Kentucky has shot worse than 40 percent in just one other game this season (35.9 percent in the loss to Vanderbilt). That's utterly dumbfounding. Darius Miller committed eight of those turnovers and he hasn't committed more than four in a game since Coach Cal's first game as UK coach.
The Cats were able to survive that game because of a few factors, not the least of which was that Louisville had comparable offensive struggles, shooting just 32.2 percent from the field and 25.3 percent in the second half. Also, UK was dominant on the boards, holding an astounding 57-31 advantage. That rebounding margin of plus-26 still ranks as UK's widest of the season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 19 of those rebounds to go along with his 24 points. Last of all, Kentucky outscored Louisville by 14 points at the foul line, hitting 32-of-43 attempts. Fifty-two total fouls were called in that New Year's Eve game, 29 on U of L.
For the sake of all our enjoyment (and the tip time of Kansas-Ohio State), here's hoping the rematch goes a bit differently.
Odds are, it will. Both of these teams are much improved in the nearly three months since that first game, particularly at the point guard position. Marquis Teague and Peyton Siva look like different players than the ones that combined for seven turnovers and just 12 points on 3-of-21 shooting on Jan. 31. With those two floor generals leading the way, expect Saturday's national semifinal to have much more flow.
With that, we can finally turn the page on the season's forgettable first installment of the "Dream Game" and preview how we should expect the second one to go:
Kentucky offense vs. Louisville defense
Simply put, the matchup on this side of the floor features two of the best units in all of college basketball. In terms of efficiency according to kenpom.com, U of L's defense is the best in the country, while Kentucky's offense is ranked No. 2, only trailing long-since eliminated Missouri.
Louisville allows an average of just 0.893 points per possession, while Kentucky scores 1.174 points per possession. The differential of 0.281 between points scored and allowed is the third-largest of any game this season, trailing only two previous Kansas-Missouri matchups.
In other words, something has to give.
Where the Cardinals excel on defense is in field-goal defense and forcing turnovers. Louisville ranks third nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense at 42.9 and 34th in turnover percentage, forcing miscues on 23.1 percent of opponents' possessions. In corresponding offensive categories, UK ranks 13th and 20th nationally.
Where U of L does not excel is in defensive rebounding (236th in defensive rebounding percentage) and defensive free-throw rate (125th), while UK is 18th and 45th in corresponding offensive categories.
Seeing that, maybe that first matchup wasn't such an anomaly. UK shot the ball terribly and was turned over left and right by U of L, but made up for it by attacking the offensive glass (20 offensive rebounds to Louisville's 21 defensive rebounds) and getting to the foul line. The Cats likely won't shoot as poorly as they did back in December, but they also probably won't shoot as well as they are accustomed to doing in tournament play. The same goes for committing turnovers.
The Cardinals have relied most of the season on a pressuring zone to stymie opponents, but Rick Pitino has tailored the defense to each opponent and even gone man-to-man on occasion (see the second half of the Elite Eight win over Florida). Calipari also expects to see a significant amount of full-court press, a defense that UK had trouble with three months ago.
Kentucky defense vs. Louisville offense
While UK and U of L seem an even match on paper when the Cats have the ball, Kentucky looks to have an advantage on the other end of the floor.
Even during their tournament run, the Cardinals have been less than elite offensively. In their eight Big East and NCAA Tournament wins, the Cards are averaging less than a point per possession, coming in at 0.998, a number actually worse than their 1.002 mark for the season as whole. Meanwhile, UK is allowing just 0.914 points per possession on defense this season, 13th best in the nation.
Louisville is just average in terms of taking care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line, ranking 217th and 164th in those two categories. Meanwhile, forcing turnovers is the one major area UK does not excel in, ranking 297th nationally. However, UK does rank eighth in defensive free-throw rate.
Where U of L will look to do damage on offense is rebounding its own misses. With freshman Chane Behanan leading the way (81st nationally in offensive rebounding percentage), Louisville is in the top 60 in offensive rebounding, while Kentucky has been spotty in terms of defensive rebounding and ranking outside the nation's top 100. UK has allowed at least 10 offensive rebounds in five straight games, including 16 against Baylor in the Elite Eight.
Rebounding should be key, because this game will likely feature plenty of Cardinal misses. U of L is 225th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (47.6), while UK is the nation's best in the defensive version of that stat at 42.2 percent.
A hallmark of Pitino's teams has always been the 3-point shot, but the importance of the 3 is not nearly as exaggerated this season. Even though Coach Cal has already talked multiple times about expecting U of L to take "20 to 25" 3s, the statistics don't suggest that to be nearly as much of a lock.
Since 2003 (the first year this statistic is measured by kenpom.com), the Cardinals have attempted around 40 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc, ranking in the top 70 nationally each season. This year, just 32.6 percent of Louisville's shots have been 3s, 175th nationally. That has something to do with U of L's improved interior play with Behanan and Gorgui Dieng, but more to do with the fact that the Cards are shooting just 31.7 percent from 3 this year, 272nd in the NCAA.
Style of play
This is a bit of a wildcard going into Saturday's game. Kentucky and Louisville are close in terms of pace of play on the season, averaging 66.5 and 67.3 possessions per game. The first matchup proved to be a very high-possession game (79, to be exact), but more because of how many fouls were called than anything else.
In my opinion, recent performance is a much better indicator of how this game will be played. For UK, recent performance suggests the Cats will try to run, run and run some more. In four tournament games, Kentucky is averaging nearly 70.3 possessions per game. Conventional knowledge says the game slows down during March Madness, but UK is flipping that on its head.
Louisville, on the other hand, has really slowed things down in the postseason. Ignoring an anomalous 83-possession game against Marquette in the Big East Tournament, U of L is averaging just 62 possessions per game. Even so, the Cardinals have been unafraid of running with teams that try to push the pace, highlighted by one of the quickest games of the season in December against Memphis, an 86-possession affair.
Regardless of pace, this matchup seems the polar opposite of UK's Sweet 16 game against Indiana. The Hoosiers were an excellent offensive team with a mediocre defense, while Louisville has a similarly sound defense with an offense that lags behind. To win this one, the Wildcats will need to stay patient on offense, because things won't come easy, while buckling down on defense as they are capable of doing. UK also must capitalize on any open-floor opportunities afforded by rebounds or turnovers to score easy points before U of L can set up its swarming defense.