This Is It; The Main Event. Cats and Cards
Yes, Big Blue fans, the more things change, the more they remain the same. A small dose of recent history may help place this year’s edition of this Battle of the Bluegrass into clearer context.
Two years ago, the Cats ventured into the Yum Center with two losses and many question marks. The Cards placed its 11-1 record on the line, and entered the game a single digit favorite to even the newest rendition of the Calipari-Pitino rivalry at one game each. However, the Cats rode Josh Harrellson’s back to a huge 15 point road win, 78-63, a swing of 19 points in the Cats’ favor, predicted to actual. Calipari 2; Pitino 0.
A year ago, the Cats and Cards entered their annual bragging rights game with the Cats perched atop the college basketball world, poised for a run that would eventually bring #8 to Lexington. The Cards were not chopped liver, and fought their way to a final four rematch against the Cats. The Cats entered the battle of the Bluegrass at Rupp a solid 14 point favorite, but the Cards showed their fight and kept the game in single digits, finally yielding to the eventual NCAA Champions by 7 points, 69-62, a swing of 7 points in the Cards’ favor, predicted to actual. Calipari 3; Pitino 0.
Add the Final Four encounter to the storyline, another Cats win, 69-61, and we have the current tally, Calipari 4; Pitino 0.
Yes, Calipari 4; Pitino 0!!!
A year ago, prior to the game, I observed that over the “course of a 31 game college basketball season, there are only a handful of games each year the really matter, and when the Cats and Cards square off, that game must be included in the count regardless of the scheduled date, hour, or venue. This is it, the main event. … How can any amount of preparation be enough? How can any amount of hype be too much? Two of the marquee programs of the sport, located 90 miles apart, sporting two of the bigger than life head coaches, representing two of the most rabid fan bases known to exist within a single state.”
So, here again, the Cats will enter the Yum Center with more losses (3 this time) than Louisville, and more question marks than answers. The Cards will again host this event with an 11-1 record, and a solid favorite to end the recent Calipari run, and keep the 2012-13 Cards near the top of the current college basketball landscape. As you will see below, this year’s NGE analysis is a mirror image of last seasons. Last year, the Cats entered the game as a 14 point favorite. This year, the Cards will enter this game as a 15 point favorite. Last year, the Cards extended the homestanding Cats to the end before the Cats could secure a 7 point home win. Two years ago, the Cats’ Yum Center performance was an impressive 19 points stronger than the NGE pre-game analysis, and this year, it will take that level of performance by the Cats to get out of the Yum Center with the win instead of their 4th loss of this young season.
Louisville has opened the season with eleven wins in twelve starts. The Cards’ only loss came at the hands of #3 Duke on a neutral floor by 5 points. The Cards claim wins over #21 Missouri (neutral) by 23 points, #41 Illinois State (home) by 3 points, and #48 Memphis (away) by 9 points, after erasing a 16-point deficit. The Cards and the Cats have played two common opponents. Each team has sustained neutral court losses to Duke (Louisville by 5 points, and the Cats by 8 points), and each team claims a home win over #307 Samford (Louisville by 26 points, Kentucky by 32 points). However, as any objective review of this grudge match will demonstrate, these teams usually find a way to render the pre-game records less relevant.
Louisville has averaged about 70 possessions per game, producing 78.1 ppg (1.11 ppp) and allowing 55.5 ppg (0.80 ppp) against an early schedule that Pomeroy rates as the 120th toughest (0..5624). Louisville has turned the ball over on 18.2% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on an impressive 30.7% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, Louisville has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 39.9%, about 7% above the 33% NCAA average, and a defensive rebounding rate of 70.2%, also about 7% above the NCAA average.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 71 possessions per game, producing 78.5 ppg (1.10 ppp) and allowing 61.1 ppg (0.87 ppp) against a schedule strength of 0..5040 (196th). The Cats have committed turnovers on 17.3% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 21.8% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 34.3% and 69.4% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cards by 15 points, 76-61 in a game played at a pace of 70 possessions for the Cats and 70 possessions for Louisville. Pomeroy figures the Game in Louisville’s favor by 9 points, 71-62 at a pace of 71 possessions. From my perspective, a Louisville margin on Saturday of more than 20 points would not bode in the Cats’ final exam. However, if the Cats are able to keep this game in single digits, and within 1 or 2 possessions within the final 4 minute segment, I will be impressed that the Cats are accepting the challenges. A Kentucky victory at the Yum Center will send a message to the rest of the basketball world that the Cats intend to defend their title zealously.