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Stats predict another compelling UK-U of L showdown

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Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Louisville went nearly three decades without running into each other in the NCAA Tournament before a Final Four matchup in 2012 that essentially shut down the state.

Two years later and two rounds earlier, it's happening all over again in the Sweet 16.

For the second time in five days, the eyes of the college basketball world will be on the Wildcats when they square off with the Cardinals at 9:45 p.m. on Friday. Before then, you'll surely read countless stories about the rivalry and what it means to fans, and the relationship between John Calipari and Rick Pitino will be dissected yet again.

But there's time for all that later. For now, we're going to stick to the stats that could decide the winner of the latest Dream Game.

As we have done for each of UK's two NCAA Tournament wins, we're going to use kenpom.com's advanced data to evaluate the two teams. First, let's take a look at the stats that decided the December matchup between the two teams when the Cats scored their signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.

1. Turnovers -- And really, it's not even close.

Like most Pitino-coached teams, Louisville thrives on turnovers forced with their pressure, both full- and half-court. In spite of a freshmen-laden backcourt, the Cats were exceptional taking care of the ball against the Cardinals.

UK committed turnovers on just 15.7 percent of its possessions and 11 for the game. On defense, the Cats exceeded their season average and forced turnovers on 18.6 percent of the Cards' possessions and 13 for the game.

As a result, UK was the only opponent to have a positive turnover margin against U of L in the regular season. Saint Louis matched the feat in the round of 32, winning the turnover battle, 19-18.

2. Rebounding -- As the Cats have done so often this season, they exerted their will on the glass and won the rebounding battle, 44-36, even though leading rebounder Julius Randle had just three as he battled second-half leg cramps.

UK was solid on the defensive glass, grabbing 69.2 percent of Louisville's misses (27 of 39), but even better on the offensive boards. There, the Cats rebounded 41.5 percent of their own misses (17 of 41). That's a big part of the reason why UK was just one of five U of L opponents this season to score more than one point per possession against the Cardinals.

3. 3-point shooting -- Given that UK shot just 3 of 14 (21.4 percent), this might make you do a double-take.

However, U of L shot just 6 of 26 (23.1 percent) from deep to counteract 53.1 percent shooting from 2-point range. The Cardinals are shooting 37 percent from 3 to UK's 32.7 percent, so treading water from deep was a win for the Cats.

With that behind us, let's take a look at the rematch.

When Kentucky is on offense

It's always interesting to see an offense and defense so efficient match up. UK currently ranks 17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, while U of L is third on the defensive end.

It's even more interesting that matchup play out when the two units are good for completely contrasting reasons.

The Cats are good on offense thanks to their superb rebounding (second nationally) and free-throw rate (seventh). The Cardinals, meanwhile, are average or below average in the two corresponding defensive categories, ranking 231st in rebounding percentage on the defensive end and 124th in defensive free-throw-rate.

U of L makes up for its deficits by contesting shots and forcing turnovers at an exceptionally high level, ranking sixth in effective field-goal percentage defense (.438) and second in turnover percentage (.252). The Cardinals are the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in both categories. On the flip side, UK is 158th in effective field-goal percentage (.498) and 167th in turnover percentage (.183).

In December, it was UK that most effectively capitalized on its offensive strengths. If the Cats can duplicate that performance -- and maybe even do a little better than shoot 16 of 30 from the foul line -- they could be on the way to a fourth Elite Eight in five seasons. U of L will have other ideas.

When Kentucky is on defense

This matchup is a bit more straightforward, matching strength vs. strength.

UK and U of L are an identical 29th nationally in effective field-goal percentage on offense and defense, respectively. Both are also solid rebounding units. The Cats (167th in turnover percentage) should not expect many Louisville mistakes, as the Cardinals are 25th nationally in turnover percentage behind sure-handed point guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones.

To limit the Cardinals again, UK will need to protect its defensive glass and force Russ Smith to take contested looks once more. The All-American scored 19 points in the first matchup, but did so on just 7-of-20 shooting.

Bottom line

The pace of Friday's game will be worth paying attention to. On the season, UK is averaging 2.6 fewer possessions per game than U of L.

In the postseason, the difference is even starker. In playing their best basketball over the last five games, the Cats are averaging just 62.4 possessions per game. By contrast, U of L is speeding it up in the postseason and averaging 69.4 possessions in the American Athletic Conference and NCAA tournaments.

UK will likely try to grind it out against the Cardinals, but don't think the Cats can't win a fast-paced game. The regular-season matchup featured 70 possessions.

Regardless of tempo, the outcome is going to come down to which of these two teams playing at their peak executes in a high-pressure environment.

UK and U of L fans each have reason to be confident. Every national champion in the history of kenpom.com's ratings has ranked in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Cardinals are currently 15th on offense and third on defense. UK is 17th on offense and 26th on defense, one solid performance away from meeting the criteria.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


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