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Game Preview: Louisville Cardinals

The Hoosiers are in the Big Apple for their biggest challenge of the non-conference season, and, perhaps, the toughest test they'll face all season.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports


Who? Louisville Cardinals (7-0, #4 KenPom) v. Indiana Hoosiers (7-1, #50 KenPom)

When? 9:00 PM, ESPN

Vegas? INDIANA +8

Pomeroy? LOUISVILLE by 10, 16% chance of victory


A Uniquely Difficult Challenge

Anyone who pays attention to college basketball has probably seen Louisville play a handful of times, as they're traditionally a good team who appears frequently on national broadcasts and often sticks around in the NCAA Tournament for a couple of weeks at least. Rick Pitino and the Cardinals went to the Final Four in 2012, won it all in 2013, and were the #1 overall team in Ken Pomeroy's ratings in 2013 and 2014. It's not outlandish to say that this will be the toughest opponent that Indiana will face all season.

If you've seen Louisville play, you know what to expect. The Cardinals play at roughly the same tempo as the Hoosiers but add in a full-court matchup press that might, on the surface, remind fans of what they saw Indiana deal with against VCU in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Obviously, these defensive systems are not identical and some of the finer nuances would probably only be pointed out by a diehard Louisville or VCU fan, but the concepts Indiana must employ to have success are the same. It will take a team effort to protect the ball and if you allow errors to compound, the deficit will become double-digits in a hurry.

Here's a great write-up on what makes Pitino's system unique to him from our friends at Card Chronicle. The comparisons to VCU are easy, but it should be noted that Louisville is far better at recovering from a beaten press and settling into their excellent halfcourt defense. It seems, at times, against VCU that if you beat their full-court trap it was almost a guaranteed lay-in on the other end.

Personnel-wise, Louisville has a wealth of talent up and down the roster, with Montrezl Harrell being the centerpiece. The 6'8", 235 pound junior is a matchup nightmare for an undersized and defensively-challenged Hoosiers team. Tom Crean will likely deploy about every idea in his arsenal to contain Harrell. Over half of his field goal attempts are coming at the rim according to the good folks over at ShotAnalytics, and for good reason, as he's hitting a practically unbelievable 91% on those attempts, which explains his 63.8% eFG% despite shooting only 23.1% on three pointers. His midrange game is good enough to punish those who sag off of him too far but he's not an imposing perimeter threat at this stage.

Indiana has shown some improvement in their zone defense this year and I would anticipate seeing it a lot in an effort to neutralize the Cardinals' size advantage and hopefully force long jumpers. The majority of Louisville's offense comes from fifteen-feet and in (63% of attempts), any shot taken from further out should be considered a small victory for the Hoosiers. The last thing the Cardinals want to do is get in a long-range jumpshooting contest with Indiana, because that's a version of this game they'll be hard-pressed to win. They're 296th in country in 3PT% and their top two shooters based on volume, Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear are shooting 31.3% combined. For comparison, Indiana is 8th in the country in 3PT% and their top two shooters based on volume, James Blackmon Jr. and Nick Zeisloft are hitting at combined clip of 49.4%.

Chris Jones and Terry Rozier handle the distribution duties for Rick Pitino's squad, with Jones being the most perimeter-oriented regular for the Cardinals. Together, the backcourt takes 52.8% of the shots for Louisville but aren't as efficient in the early-going as you'd probably want out of guys taking that many shots. Jones' eFG% is a paltry 37.3% while Rozier's is more acceptable but still not overly-impressive at 48.6%. On the whole, Louisville wants to play the game at close-range and that's reflected in their shot selection and their excellent free throw rate. Unfortunately (for them), they're only hitting 59.0% of their free throws on the season.

As the Four Factors will reveal, these offensive "deficiencies" aren't cause for tons of concern because of how well the team plays defense. We discussed the full-court press but that is only one component of what makes them so good. They'll switch between a variety of zones and man defense throughout a single possession with incredible fluidity and Indiana's 12th most efficient offense will certainly have their work cut out for them. For a team that plays even a little faster than Indiana, to hold all seven opponents under 70 points is incredible. Ohio State, possessors of the 35th best offense in the country, managed just 0.83 points per possession in their game against Louisville.

Stat-Filled Goodness

Four Factors

eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Offense) 60.5% (3rd) 17.3% (59th) 37.5% (43rd) 42.9% (77th)
LOUISVILLE (Defense) 35.3% (2nd) 27.7% (4th) 29.3% (109th) 35.4% (147th)

eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Defense) 48.9% (178th) 19.7% (193rd) 33.4% (241st) 23.7% (8th)
LOUISVILLE (Offense) 49.6% (137th) 20.2% (179th) 41.4% (11th) 51.7% (18th)

Making shots is a big part of basketball. #analysis So it's pretty cool to see the 3rd best team at making shots going toe-to-toe with the 2nd best team at preventing made shots. Louisville is better than Indiana in a lot of ways but this is a huge component of the game that they're equal in. One of these numbers is going to give tomorrow night and I don't see how anyone can't be excited to tune in for it.

The numbers do reveal some cracks in the Cardinals' armor but I'm not sure if Indiana is going to be all that able to exploit them consistently. Louisville is certainly prone to turning the ball over but Indiana isn't too good at forcing mistakes. They're a thoroughly average shooting team overall but Indiana is just as poor in making shooters miss. Louisville does send guys to the line with greater frequency than Indiana and IU is a far better team at hitting the free ones, shooting 74.7%.

The offensive rebounding battle will also be one to watch, as Louisville is elite in pulling down their own missed shots and Indiana has proven to be rather inept in preventing that early on this year. For a team that struggles to get stops, it's nothing short of devastating to force a miss and then fail to gather in the rebound. Louisville is far from a slouch on the offensive end, but it's definitely the worst of their two units, and giving them too many second chances will bury you.

Indiana's free throw defense continues to be #ELITE, by the way, as they're 9th in the country. Opponents are hitting only 57.6% of their attempts. But they are actually outdone in #ELITENESS by Louisville, who is holding their opponents to 56.3% from the charity stripe, good for 4th in the country.

Three Keys to Victory

  • MAKE SHOTS. It's obvious, but it needs to be repeated: Indiana cannot afford a cold shooting night or any sort of slouching on the offensive end. This offense is night-and-day different from what it looked like last year but any reversion to old habits and stagnation will get them run out of the arena early. Louisville is an excellent defensive team but they haven't played an offense quite like this. If the Hoosiers can get this game into the 70s and 80s, Louisville could have difficulty keeping up. That said, you have to get shots to make shots, and the Cardinals will make you execute from baseline to baseline all night long to get the looks Indiana is accustomed to. Great teams reduce the margin for error and the Hoosiers won't have much of one to work with Tuesday night.
  • DON'T PANIC. This is an inexperienced team playing outside of Assembly Hall for the first time this season against about as tough of an opponent as there is right now. Mistakes are going to be made but the team's leadership must keep everyone's heads in the game and help learn from (and then subsequently forget about) any mistake that gets made. Last year's team tended to go into a full-on meltdown when adversity presented itself and isolated mistakes began to cluster and leads turned into small deficits that turned into larger deficits. This team's offensive talent can keep them in a lot of games against far superior teams, it's important that they don't waste that potential on bad turnovers and poor shot selection because they get overwhelmed by the moment.
  • CRASH THE GLASS. While there is an important size component to rebounding, fundamentals and effort go a long way in that department as well. Stringing together defensive stops is hard enough for this team without giving up two or three straight opportunities because they couldn't collect a rebound. Indiana cannot give up the disturbing amount of second-chance opportunities they surrendered against Pitt and just hope Louisville misses the putbacks like they did.

I called these "three keys to victory" knowing full well that the Hoosiers could do these three things and still lose, that's how good Louisville is. But I listed them because I don't see Indiana winning a game where they don't do AT LEAST these three things. It will take Indiana's best effort to date, and probably their best effort since the end of the 2012-13 regular season, to pull out a victory. They won't have a raucous Assembly Hall crowd to intimidate the opposition or feed off their momentum, but they will be playing a team from Kentucky in early December with Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman calling the game for ESPN.

And that has led to magical things in the past.