Where are the Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana basketball teams better -- or worse -- this season?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville, Kentucky and Indiana play at different times in different cities against opponents from different leagues this weekend. But the three programs share one intriguing characteristic as this college basketball season moves to the one-third marker:
The Cardinals (North Carolina), Wildcats (Michigan State) and Hoosiers (Syracuse) have all lost to the best teams on their schedules.
In fact, with UK (add Baylor) and IU (Connecticut), you can amend that statement by saying both programs have lost to the two best teams they've played.
The Wildcats can upgrade their resume Saturday when they visit schizophrenic North Carolina. The Tar Heels have beaten Michigan State and Louisville, but lost to Belmont in Chapel Hill and UAB in Birmingham. Holy Cross made them sweat. They can't explain it. They can hardly tolerate it.
Louisville plays host to Western Kentucky – and a victory against the Hilltoppers would be Louisville's third-best win this season.
Indiana gets Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Although the Irish have already been beaten three times, they're better than any of the eight teams Indiana has handled. The Hoosiers need this win to have any noteworthy sparkle on their non-league resume.
For better or worse, that's the outlook for this weekend. With no games until Saturday, it's a perfect time to measure how the Cards, Wildcats and Hoosiers are better – or worse – compared to a similar point last season.
You might be surprised. I was.
I checked the 17 statistical categories tracked by the NCAA – and found nuggets that surprised me. Here goes.
The Cards's numbers are better in 10 categories – scoring; scoring margin; shooting percentage; three-pointers made per game; three-point shooting percentage; free throw percentage; assist-turnover ratio; blocks; turnovers and turnover margin.
The declines? Scoring defense; field-goal defense; three-point field-goal defense; rebound margin; assists; steals and personal fouls.
Many of the differences are marginal. A few are not. Rick Pitino has generally waved off the comparisons because of the strength (or lack of strength) of his team's schedule this season.
But three numbers stopped me – the Cards' assist-turnover ratio, their lack of turnovers and blocked shots.
Louisville's schedule over the first nine games last season was more challenging because the Cards played three Top 75 teams – Northern Illinois, Missouri and Duke – in the Bahamas.
Duly noted. Still, the Cards' turnovers per game are down from nearly 13 to 9.1. That's a big decline. Their turnover margin ranks first in the nation – 10.8. That's a ridiculous edge in scoring opportunities. And even without Gorgui Dieng (who was injured in the fifth game last season), Louisville' early season blocks have increased from 3.2 to 4.8 per game.
BONUS STATISTIC: Louisville is getting better than 27 percent of its points from the three-point line, an increase of four percentage points from last season. Credit Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear. Both guys are making better than 41 percent of their threes.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: This Kentucky team is better than last season's Kentucky team. It's more talented, deeper and more balanced.
The numbers and improvement just don't jump off the stat sheet the way I thought they would.
The Wildcats have better numbers in only six of the 17 categories after nine games – scoring; scoring margin; defensive field-goal percentage; three-point defensive field goal percentage; free throw percentage and rebounding margin.
The improvement on the glass is most noteworthy. John Calipari's team has jumped from 108th to sixth in rebounding margin, improving from plus-3.6 to plus 12. Take a bow, Julius Randle. You, too, Willie Cauley-Stein. Wear your hair any way you like.
The surprising numbers are these two – assist/turnover ratio (down from 1.32 to 1.08, 149th in the nation) and turnover margin (down from plus-1.6 per game to minus 1.2, 244th in the country). There's work to do in the backcourt when Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin were doing better things.
BONUS STATISTIC: The Wildcats are living at the free throw line. Last season UK got only 20.3 percent of its points on free throws. The number today is 27.8 percent.
Let me make a second thing perfectly clear: This Indiana team is not as talented as last season. It is not as experienced, not as deep and not nearly as efficient shooting the ball.
The numbers show that: Indiana shows improvement in four categories – field-goal defense; three-point field goal defense; rebounding margin and blocked shots.
That tells you how the Hoosiers are going to have to win until a few more shooters (Evan Gordon, Jeremy Hollowell) and scorers (Luke Fischer, Stanford Robinson) emerge – with defense and rebounding.
IU's field goal defense – 35.3 percent – ranks ninth nationally and better than the 36.8 percent from the first 10 games last season. That's noteworthy for a team that starts two freshmen and often plays three or four.
But more impressive is the way Indiana works on the glass. So far, no team has done it better. Tom Crean's team ranks first in rebound margin at plus-16, nearly a 33 percent improvement from a team that featured Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford. Of course, those guys didn't miss nearly as many shots.
This Indiana team is making fewer than 5 three-point field goals per game. The 2013 Hoosiers made closer to 8 per game.
BONUS STATISTIC: The Hoosiers are getting better than 27.2 percent of their points at the foul line. They have to. It's non-negotiable. A year ago, three-point shooting was 27.2 percent of Indiana's offense. This season it's only been 17.8 percent.