Just like Nick Saban and probably 100 other coaches out there, Kentucky’s John Calipari likes to refer to the season as “a process” of one learning opportunity followed by another and another.
When Calipari’s young Cats face archrival Louisville on Wednesday night in the Yum Center, however, the challenge will be much different from the one UK has faced to this point, and not just because this will be its first true road test.
Where UCLA and North Carolina, the two best teams Kentucky has faced to date, are offensive juggernauts, Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals are disciples of defense.
According to Ken Pomeroy, college basketball’s go-to guy for advanced statistics, Louisville leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 87.7 points per 100 possessions. (Kentucky is sixth at 92.1 points per 100 possessions.)
The Cardinals held Wichita State to 17 first-half points during a 62-52 victory over the Shockers in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. They held Purdue to 19 first-half points in a 71-64 win over the visiting Boilermakers in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
Contrast that to Saturday in Las Vegas when Kentucky led North Carolina 56-51 after the first 20 minutes, the first time since the 2004 NCAA Tournament that the Cats and their opponent scored at least 50 points by halftime. (Tubby Smith’s Cats led Florida A&M 60-52 at the half.)
When Kentucky walked off the floor with a 103-100 victory, it was the first time in 52 games that North Carolina hit the century mark and still lost.
Meanwhile, at Louisville, the days of a Pitino team pressing full-court to push the pace and throw up three-pointers are long gone. The U of L coach talked in the preseason of returning to a faster pace, but that hasn’t happened. Louisville is averaging 78.5 points per game. The Cards are 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy.
On the flip side, the Cards are giving up just 59.4 points per game. In the Bahamas, Louisville held all three of its opponents to fewer than 70 points. Only Grand Canyon (a 79-70 loser to U of L) and Texas Southern (102-71 loser) have scored 70 points or more.
95.2 to 59.4Kentucky’s points per game compared to points Louisville allows per game
That’ll be a challenge for this Kentucky team, which plays faster than any of Calipari’s previous UK editions. On Dec. 3, UCLA ran with the Cats at Rupp and Kentucky failed the test, losing 97-92. Two weeks later, North Carolina ran with the Cats, and this time Kentucky learned from its previous experience.
At the Champions Classic, Michigan State had some success slowing down Kentucky, but Tom Izzo’s young club was nowhere near good enough to make it work and lost by 21. Louisville is better than the Spartans and the Cardinals will have home-court advantage.
It will be interesting to see how Pitino tries to defend Malik Monk, the freshman guard who scored a record-setting 47 points in UK’s win over North Carolina. Pitino has a proven record of prepping to take away the opponent’s best player. That will be difficult, given Monk’s skills, but if Pitino is successful, how will Kentucky react?
In fact, that’s the big question Wednesday. In its first true road game, coming off a huge victory, playing an opponent that emphasizes defense, how will Kentucky react?
It’s another step in the process.
Louisville men’s basketball 2016-17
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