Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kentucky 73 - 66 Louisville (No. 2,121)

This game is always a big deal for the fans, and it has certainly changed the mood around the UK program.  The Cats had not won a big game against a non-conference opponent since the 2012 National Championship game, and it was nice to see them featured as winners on SportsCenter.  But it's still too early to know for sure what it all means -- other than that I'm a lot happier than I was before the game was played.

(Personal note:  I watched this game in Marion, Kentucky -- the first time I'd seen a UK/U of L game in the Beloved Commonwealth since December 27, 1997, when U of L upset the Cats 79-76.  UK went on to win the National Championship that year.  Draw whatever conclusions you want.)

So let's start with what happened chronologically.  The Cats started off by missing a bunch of shots, and soon found themselves trailing 8-0.  But then Julius Randle made a free throw, and a dunk, and a layup, and the Cats were back in business.  Randle had an amazing first half -- 7-7 from two-point range, 17 points, and 3 rebounds.  In fact, UK dominated the smaller Cardinals down low -- the Cats out-rebounded Louisville 25-14 in the first half, and UK's starting front line had 19 points compared to only 4 for Louisville's starting big men.  Nevertheless, the Cardinals hung tough thanks to 10 points from Russ Smith and 15 points from Chris Jones (who just couldn't miss).  UK outscored U of L 19-16 in the first 10 minutes and 22-20 in the next ten minutes.  So at the half, the Cats led 41-36.  According to Ken Pomeroy, at this point UK had a 70 percent chance of winning the game.

But the Cats got off to another slow start in the second half.  Aaron Harrison opened the scoring to give UK a 7-point lead, but then U of L scored seven straight points to tie the game.  Even worse, Randle had to leave the game with cramps.  (He only played four minutes in the second half, and got no points or rebounds.)

The game seesawed back and forth.  Over the first ten minutes of the second half, U of L outscored UK 16-12, making the score UK 53, U of L 52 with 10 minutes to go.  But then a Russ Smith free throw tied the game at 53 with 8:44 remaining.  At this point, according to Ken Pomeroy, each team had a 50-percent chance of victory.  But of course, his method doesn't take into account the fact that UK's best player had gone to the locker room due to leg cramps.

By this time, however, the Cats had adjusted to Randle's absence.  Instead of running their usual plays to get the ball inside, UK simply attacked the Cardinals with its big guards:

8:34 left (53-53):  Andrew Harrison missed a layup, but James Young got the rebound and putback to put UK into the lead.

8:18 left (UK 55-53):  Chane Behanan missed a jumper for U of L.  Young grabbed the rebound.
7:43 left (UK 55-53):  Andrew Harrison scored a layup and was fouled.  His free throw gave UK a 5-point lead.
7:23 left (UK 58-53):  Russ Smith, trying to take on the UK defense by himself, had the ball stolen by Willie Cauley-Stein.  Young grabbed the ball and whipped a long pass to Aaron Harrison, who scored another layup.

With UK up 60-53, and Rupp Arena going nuts, Rick Pitino called time.  Luke Hancock hit a three-pointer for Louisville to make the score 60-56, but James Young responded with a 3-pointer of his own.  Young was 3-8 from three-point range for the day, and he hit this shot -- perhaps the biggest of the game -- to put the Cats up 63-56.  Smith and Jones both missed shots on the next possession for U of L, and UK responded with a free throw from Alex Poythress and a 64-56 lead.  With 5:26 left, Smith missed another jumper, and Young grabbed the rebound.  A few seconds later, he threw to Aaron Harrison for another layup and a 10-point lead.  By that point, according to Pomeroy, the Cats had a 97 percent chance of victory.

After the game, most of the attention went to the UK guards.  James Young, with 18 points and 10 rebounds, was the CBS player of the game.  ESPN said UK had committed a "twin killing," thanks to the Harrisons, who combined for 28 points and 8 rebounds.  All three guards were given kudos for their big plays down the stretch and their willingness to step up in Randle's absence.

I certainly agree that UK's young guards made some huge plays late in the game, especially given the fact that Randle was on the bench.  But we shouldn't get too carried away.  For the game, Andrew Young and the two Harrisons combined for 46 points.  However, they got those points by going 13-33 (39.4 percent) from 2-point range, 3-12 (25.0 percent) from 3-point range, and 11-21 (52.3 percent) from the line.  The rest of the team (mostly Randle and Poythress) went 11-15 (73.3 percent) from 2-point range, 0-2 (0.0 percent from 3-point range, and 5-9 (55.5 percent) from the line.  Look at the Offense Ratings (a measure of offensive efficiency) for UK's six main players:

Front Line:
Willie Cauley-Stein:  114
Julius Randle:  126
Alex Poythress:  150 (Poythress had 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 0 turnovers in only 21 minutes.)

James Young:  103
Andrew Harrison:  89
Aaron Harrison:  72

In short, UK's best strategy remains working the ball inside and using its superior height and strength to overpower teams down low.  Even our guards are probably better off attacking the glass, as they did down the stretch against Louisville.

In fact, I would argue that the most important statistic in the game represented a huge bit of luck for UK.  Louisville normally makes 34.8 percent of their three-point shots.  But against the Cats, U of L went only 6-26 from behind the arc, a dreadful average of only 23.1 percent.  If they had gone 9-26 (their usual percentage), the Cardinals would have had 9 more points, and this report might be limited to a couple of sentence railing against UK for missing so many free throws.  (The Cats were 16-30 from the line, and are now 259th in the country in free-throw percentage.)  Russ Smith was 0-5 from behind the arc, and Luke Hancock was only 2-8.  Many of these misses (especially the ones from Hancock) were off of wide open looks.  You won't see too many games where those two guys are 2-13 from three-point range, and it's good that UK took advantage of this golden opportunity.

But I don't want to end by implying that the Cats were merely lucky.  It's easy enough, after the fact, to say that Louisville's poor outside shooting was the difference -- and that is how it looks on paper.  The games, however, are not played on paper -- but by young men facing desperate pressure.  And by that standard, UK's young men held up very well.  Louisville threw its vaunted press at the young Cats, but UK actually had fewer turnovers than Louisville (11 to 13).  And despite losing Randle for the entire second half, UK out-rebounded Louisville by the comfortable margin of 44 to 36.  Those numbers show a lot of wisdom and hard work from the Cats, and they could bode very well for the rest of the season.

As for Ken Pomeroy, he now has the Cats ranked 9th in the country (he still has Louisville number 1), and he expects UK to go 14-4 in the SEC and finish with a record of 24-7.  So we're ahead of where I thought we would be.

No comments:

Post a Comment