- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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By Saturday, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Thad Matta and Bill Self will have had nearly a week to scout their opponents. As we type, they're breaking down film, analyzing their opponents' strengths and weaknesses and searching for ways to impart this knowledge to their players in simple, digestible form. They are ... pause for dramatic effect ... game-planning.
What will each come up with? We don't exactly know. That's why they're coaches in the Final Four, and we are, you know, not. But we can still venture a guess. In the first of a two-part series, here's a look at what they may be coming up with.
Up first: Louisville vs. Kentucky
Offense: All week Calipari has told his team -- at least, according to his public appearances -- he isn't worried about the rivalry, or winning a national championship, or any of the pressure UK fans can't help but place on a team that is expected by almost everyone to bring home the program's eighth national championship this season. Instead, Calipari says, he is worried only that UK "plays its best basketball."
This is an entirely appropriate approach. Simply put: When UK plays its best basketball, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, the Wildcats are essentially impossible to stop. We've seen as much in the tournament (UK scored an insane 1.27 points per possession in its four south region wins) and before it (when Kentucky scored 1.20 points per possession in its 16-0 SEC regular-season run).
What makes UK so good? It isn't any one thing. Stylistically, the Cats don't rely on any one trait; rather, via Ken Pomeroy, they rank in the top 20 in the nation in effective field goal percentage, turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage. They can score in the half court and on the break; according to Synergy Sports Technologies scouting data, UK ranks in the 95th percentile in efficiency in half-court situations and the 87th percent in transition. Their most frequently used play type this season was the spot-up jumper, which they used on 22.5 percent of possessions, but Calipari's offense is diverse, utilizing ball screens, handoffs, cuts, isolations and straight post-ups throughout the season.
The only slight knock on this offense (if you can even call it that)? It was slightly worse against zone defenses than man defenses this season. Kentucky scored 0.971 points per possession against man-to-man in 2012. Its points per trip dropped slightly, to 0.956, against the zone. That's hardly a major drop-off.
When you have Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, you can penetrate the lane, work off screens, dominate the boards, get easy buckets and knock down outside shots when needed. You don't have to change what you do for anybody, including the Louisville Cardinals.
One would imagine that is the real gist of Calipari's message this week: If we do what we do well, no one can keep us from scoring.
Defense: Kentucky's defense isn't as good as its offense. The Wildcats' real strength is scoring the rock, sure, but at No. 11 in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, UK guards well enough that it could be a merely decent offensive team and still be worthy of a trip to the Final Four.
Newsflash: Kentucky is really good.
The Wildcats' primary concern on the defensive end should be the prevention of transition buckets. That stems from the offense, of course, which means Marquis Teague and the rest of the Wildcats will have to limit their turnovers, grab offensive rebounds and recover back on defense before the Cardinals can get a head of steam. But it mostly means picking up on the secondary break.
Louisville would like nothing better than to get fast-break layups, of course, but it will be just as satisfied with pushing the pace on long rebounds and odd-man situations, finding trailing shooters and open men in the corner -- namely guard Kyle Kuric. Kentucky's primary focus, then, won't be on whether it can stop Louisville in the half court. Of course, it can. This defense is great; Louisville's half-court offense isn't. The Wildcats will have to focus almost entirely on making sure Louisville doesn't get shots off from long range.
If they do, even if Louisville's defense bogs them down, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals scoring frequently enough to keep this thing close. Can you picture it? Because I can't.
TL;DR game plan: Don't get flustered by pressure, run our stuff, do what we do. On defense, run everybody off the 3-point line. (Simple enough, right?)
Defense: Since the start of the Big East tournament, Louisville has won eight straight games, changed its style of play more than a few times, held opponents to a combined .88 points per trip and rocketed up Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings, where it currently sits at No. 1 overall.
In other words: If any defense in the country can slow Kentucky's offense right now, it's this one.
How will the Cardinals go about doing it?
According to Synergy, in the NCAA tournament, Louisville has played man on 152 possessions, or 57.6 percent of the time, and it has allowed just 0.737 points per trip to opponents. Pitino has used his zone on 112 possessions, or 42.4 percent of the time, when it has ceded 0.786 points per trip. (Those numbers are slightly skewed by that Florida first half, but they're valid all the same.) The Cardinals are at their weakest defensively in transition, where they've allowed 0.963 points per trip. But those possessions (just 27 in the tournament) have been few and far between.
So it is that Pitino has a series of choices to make. The man is rarely predictable, and his stylistic approach is never cut and dry. That's why his team is here: It can spring surprises (see Michigan State), change styles on the fly (see Florida) and execute almost anything Pitino asks. No wonder he loves this team so much.
So what does he choose? How does he seek to stop this juggernaut Kentucky attack?
The first is pressure: Louisville will almost certainly pressure full-court Teague and UK's other ball handlers after every made shot. There may not be many of those, but the pressure might apply to misses, too -- the more you can make the game difficult for Kentucky before the ball crosses half court, the better chance you have of upsetting their pristine, business-like offensive rhythm. Pitino may tell Smith and Siva to pressure the ball immediately, no matter what, to speed up the game, to create havoc in the backcourt and to wear on Teague (Kentucky's lone true point guard) as much as possible.
Once the ball crosses half court, he may have to resort to the zone. Kentucky can shoot it, no question, and it has the kinds of players capable of breaking down the zone off the dribble (and that's when the Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones lobs start flying in). But on a sheer man-to-man scale, Louisville can't match up, nor should it try. A hybrid matchup zone could turn Kentucky into a passing team, one that can't work off Calipari's screen-roll-replace and handoff action, one that helps to nullify touches in the post, one that prevents simple isolations for UK's brilliant scorers.
With a typical diet of effective slapping and digging, the turnovers may come. But if not, at least Louisville won't have to shade double-teams and work back to shooters and scramble around the court just to keep up.
Offense: Which is where the offense comes in. The game can never be approached merely as a two-sided affair; offense bleeds into defense and vice-versa for every team. But that's especially true for Louisville. And even more so for this game.
Simply put, the Cardinals are not a great offensive team. Their eight-game run to the Final Four hasn't changed that fact. Their most efficient scoring in the tournament (41 points in 30 possessions) has come in transition. In the half court, they've been merely OK, scoring 0.849 points per possession in 252 possessions.
The Cardinals' most frequently used half-court play -- a high ball screen -- has yielded just 0.739 points per trip in the tournament. They've achieved similar results with post-up plays and isolations. Indeed, Louisville's best offense has come when the game is moving. Of the 11 general play types Synergy tracks, the Cardinals are most efficient when finding cutters, battling for offensive rebounds, dishing to the screener off a pick-and-roll, on spot-ups and in "miscellaneous" plays, which usually involve some type of scramble around the rim.
Unlike its opponent, Louisville has to actively generate ways to score. And in this game, that means pace.
The Cardinals will look to run at every chance, and why not? They're better in transition, and you'd much rather try to score on Kentucky before Davis has a chance to get back to fully cordon off the middle of the lane. This strategy assumes you can turn the Wildcats over, or make them miss shots and get long rebounds. That's no easy feat. But it is the best chance Louisville has of putting up points on its opponents in any meaningful way. And hey, it worked for Indiana's offense. The Hoosiers just couldn't get a stop.
Besides, the other option -- a staid half-court game -- simply isn't going to work.
With pressure, a tricky zone, up-tempo attack and a scrambling style around the rim, the Cardinals can dictate the terms of the engagement. Against a team this good, with players this talented, that is Pitino's best chance of knocking off the rival Kentucky Wildcats. Even Malcolm Gladwell would have to agree.
TL;DR game plan: Pressure Teague whenever possible, switch into a matchup zone to make the Wildcats adjust, force the tempo at every opportunity, find open shooters on the secondary break, hope for the best.