Yo, Sanka, you dead?
No? Good. Probably need to find some shelter before this Friday, though. The circus has arrived in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and it's going to get out of hand in a hurry. No tridents, please.
As soon as Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer clanked out and Kentucky held on to beat previously undefeated Wichita State, it's been ... intense. That's because Kentucky and Louisville are meeting in the Sweet 16. The game tips off 30 minutes after the conclusion of Michigan and Tennessee's game on Friday in Indianapolis. It'll be on CBS. And there'll be mayhem in Lucas Oil Stadium.
There will be a lot of interest in Michigan State and Virginia's similarly-timed Sweet 16 game on Friday. But not here. Not on Friday night. As Adam Himmelsbach wrote last night, "Yes, this is really happening. Yes, this is going to be intense. No, I don't have tickets for you."
Kentucky won that first meeting 73-66. Before that game, I wrote essentially a "Who will win?" post that broke down some interesting numbers for both teams.
People seemed to like it. So, using the mathematical property known as Give the People What They Want, I am going to do that again here.
What happened last time
Kentucky's size bothered Louisville and made its biggest impact on rebounding, where the Wildcats got 41 percent of their own missed shots and scored 17 second-chance points. Size also got UK 42 points in the paint.
Beyond that, Kentucky took 18 more 2-pointers than Louisville, and made 24 of 48. Louisville shot 53 percent inside the arc, but was 17 of 32. That's a big difference.
UK also canceled out two numbers that usually separate Louisville from its opponents. The teams tied on points off turnovers, and Louisville only outscored UK 10-6 on fast-break points.
We know now that Louisville (31-5) is at its best when it's trapping ball handlers, shooting into passing lanes and getting out in transition. Kentucky is at its best defending in halfcourt sets, where the Wildcats' size shrinks space for offenses to operate.
Louisville's effective field-goal percentage, a statistic adjusted to reflect the value of a 3-pointer vs. a 2-pointer, is 11 percentage points better in transition.
Kentucky's opponents have a 54 percent effective field goal percentage in transition. It drops to 42 percent in the halfcourt.
Louisville also struggled from 3 and turned the ball over too much. The Cards were 6 of 26 from long range and committed 13 turnovers to UK's 11. As I recently found, a bad night shooting the 3 usually costs Louisville a win.
The Cards are 16-1 when they make seven or more 3-pointers in a game. They are 29-3 when they commit fewer turnovers than their opponents. Kentucky erased both of those categories.
Louisville committed 13 turnovers against UK in December, and UK lost 11. U of L's number had (again) a lot to do with Kentucky's length -- it's hard to move the ball around long arms. The Cards only had eight assists in that game, too.
U of L coach Rick Pitino has said over and over that his team is at its best when the ball is moving quickly and frequently. Poor ball movement leads to poor field-goal shooting percentages, which is reflected above by Louisville's eight assists, 13 turnovers and 23-percent 3-point shooting performance against UK.
Louisville won twice this weekend in spite of its ball movement. The defense against Saint Louis did the trick, and a few key baskets against Manhattan stopped the upset attempt.
"We didn't pass the ball enough, and that's what Russ (Smith) has to learn coming away from this game," Pitino said Thursday after beating Manhattan. "We've been a big assist team and, in the last two games, we've had 10 assists. That's why we're shooting a low percentage."
Kentucky also got solid offensive games from James Young and Andrew Harrison in December, and the Wildcats need that again on Friday. As one reader reminded me on Monday, Julius Randle missed much of the second half and played 21 minutes. No chance he plays such limited time on Friday, and he has become a load to bear.
Yes, Young was just 5 of 17 from the field, but getting three 3-pointers forced Louisville to stay honest on defense -- not to mention Young had 10 rebounds from the small-forward spot.
Harrison was aggressive in the first meeting, taking 14 2-pointers and getting to the line 12 times. He wasn't terribly efficient (an offensive rating of 89 was the second-worst on UK in the game), but his aggression as a 6-6 guard is hard for Louisville to stop.
Louisville's team looks better than the one it put on the court in December, and Kentucky's looks sharper these past two weeks.
Kentucky's offense has finally found some moxie after a lot of standing around led to bad shots and even worse body language in losses to South Carolina, Arkansas and Florida (the second game of three). The Wildcats looked much more aggressive and assertive at the SEC tournament and in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Harrison twins have been much better leading the offense, and Julius Randle has engaged a lot more. If Randle is going, few can stop him.
"I have been through this 20 years and I've coached every different kind of point guard," UK coach John Calipari said Sunday of Andrew Harrison. "I don't know what I was thinking -- tweaked a couple of things for him and all of a sudden he is playing different, he's got a smile on his face.
"As far as Aaron (Harrison), they kind of feed off one another a little bit. But as he played better, guess what? (Andrew) played better."
Louisville's roster is a bit different. When the teams met in December, Mangok Mathiang and Wayne Blackshear were starting and Chane Behanan was still on U of L. Behanan's long gone, and Mathiang and Blackshear have become role players off the bench. Montrezl Harrell worked his way into the conversation as one of the top big men in the country. And, yes, even Stephan Van Treese has become a factor. Those two must play at their best on Friday.
The Wildcats from the past five games are not the Wildcats from the regular season. Peruse the box scores from the past five games and the numbers might surprise you:
In the postseason, Kentucky is actually shooting worse on 2-pointers and getting to the free-throw line less than it did in the regular season. The Wildcats for the season have shot 50.1 percent from 2; they're shooting 47.2 percent in the postseason. Their free-throw-attempt per field-goal-attempt rate is 53.2 percent for the season; it's 49.8 percent in the postseason.
Even weirder: Kentucky's opponents have a higher free-throw-attempt rate AND a better 2-point shooting percentage.
So how is Kentucky 4-1, with two solid wins against Kansas State and Wichita State? Locked-up glass. Kentucky's opponents in the past five games are getting 6 percentage points fewer of their own misses off the offensive glass.
Everything else has been statistically similar except that, but that's a huge number. In UK's nine regular-season losses this season, Wildcats opponents grabbed 31.3 percent of their own misses. In the past five games, that number's down to 23 percent.
"They now are putting themselves in a position where they're accepting roles how they have to play," Calipari said Sunday. "We're becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they're playing better and more confident."
"I believe the reason we're playing very sound, good basketball right now coming into this tournament is because of Van Treese and Chris Jones," Pitino said. "If I had to pick an MVP of the AAC tournament, it would have not been Russ, who scored 42 points -- he's our LeBron -- it would have been Stephan Van Treese. It doesn't show up on the stat sheet how well he played in that tournament. He played awesome.
"And the second one I would pick would be Chris Jones. Those two guys have made us such a better basketball team than we were at the midway point of the season. They have evolved into great basketball players."
Jones discovered his role sometime in February and has been a different player since. He's 15 of 29 from 3-point range -- 51.7 percent -- in the past seven games after shooting 33 percent from distance in the first 29 games of the season.
Van Treese is now the best offensive rebounder on the current team and the 28th best offensive rebounder in the country, per KenPom.com. He's grabbing nine rebounds a game since his "awakening" against Connecticut in the last game of the regular season. Of those nine rebounds a game, he averages four on the offensive end.
And a deeper look at who he rebounded well against shows that it's actually not what I thought: Van Treese has rebounded at his best against Louisville's biggest opponents.
Louisville played eight teams that rank in the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy's effective height rankings, which is rather aptly defined here by Basketball Prospectus. Those teams are Kentucky, Connecticut (three times), North Carolina, USF (twice), SMU (twice), Temple (twice), Saint Louis and Rutgers (three times).
In those 15 games, Van Treese grabbed six rebounds per game while averaging 23.2 minutes. That's better than his season average. And what makes him so valuable is his hustle plays and tapouts. If he can get Louisville those three offensive rebounds against Kentucky and win some 50-50 balls, that's huge, and it's not something Louisville had earlier this year.
Yo, Sanka, you dead?