For all of the talk surrounding Belmont's upset chances against Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament - talk that is rightfully deserved for the Bruins - many are overlooking another equally intriguing upset possibility in Louisville's opening round contest with Morehead State.
The Cardinals had an excellent run during the Big East regular season, but as we've seen many times at this time of year, school's that rely heavily on perimeter shooting can go ice cold at the most inopportune times. Factor in an Eagles team that won't be phased by elite competition, NBA prospect Kenneth Faried on the inside and the absence of the Cardinal's Rakeem Buckles and this game has all the makings of a classic 13-over-4 upset, almost as much as the Bruins chances of downing the Badgers.
Read on after the jump to see why.
Louisville Cardinals, 4-Seed Southwest Region
A relatively young Louisville team exceeded expectations this season by winning 26 games, earning a #14 national ranking and finishing in a tie for third place in the Big East during the regular season. But now, a bench loaded with inexperienced youth may cause some potential hiccups in a tricky first round game with Morehead State. Still, following a run to the Big East Tournament championship game and wins over Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse, Connecticut and Butler during the season, the Cardinals are a battle tested squad heading into the postseason.
Offensively this is a well above average team, looking even better when examining them through the lens of tempo free statistics. The Cardinals are 39th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy and average nearly .93 points per possession which puts them with Syracuse in the 86th national percentile. Not surprisingly given their personnel, this is a team that thrives in spot-up and transition scenarios, ranking highly in both play types in regards to scoring efficiency. Preston Knowles and Kyle Kuric are a big reason why despite Louisville's half court offensive breakdown being comprised of nearly 60% jump shots, this team still is among the top shooting teams at the Division 1 level. Knowles is a 39% three-point shooter, and Kuric hits on 44% of his tries from beyond the arc and ranks as one of the top spot-up scorers in the country.
Running the break has proven to be a strength for the Cardinals as well, posting an adjusted field goal percentage of nearly 62% in transition. Peyton Siva is the team's top fastbreak threat by pretty much any metric used and it's not even close. The sophomore guard accounts for nearly one-fourth of all transition possessions for the team and shoots nearly 61% from the floor in this setting. Kuric is up there as well, though he looks to spot up on the wing while the defense recovers and he has proven to be deadly here, posting an adjusted field goal percentage of 75.4%.
Defense has been Louisville's calling card this season however, ranking among the very best teams in the country in this regard. The Cardinals allow opponents to shoot just 30% from beyond the arc and 44% on all two-point field goal attempts. Furthermore, they have forced turnovers on nearly one out of every four possessions for their opponents this season. One aspect of this defense that is certain to change though is the interior play due to the loss of Rakeem Buckles. During the season Louisville held opposing teams to less than 36% shooting on shots around the rim, one of the best percentages in the nation, but that will undoubtedly not be the case with Buckles' absence.
Morehead State Eagles, 13-seed Southwest Region
Despite finishing second in the Ohio Valley Conference behind reigning champion Murray State, the Eagles are in the Big Dance after running through the conference tournament without having to face a Racers team that was upset. Don't be fooled by the conference schedule though, Morehead State has an NBA talent in Kenneth Faried and has been battle tested during the regular season, defeating MVC champ Indiana State and staying within single digits of Ohio State and Florida in back-to-back November contests.
Like their opponent Louisville, the Eagles are slightly better at the defensive end of the floor than offensively, but the degree of success isn't at the same level. Morehead is efficient scoring inside the arc, but has struggled mightily shooting from the outside. The biggest area of concern though is undoubtedly the turnover struggles that have plagued them all season, as the Eagle's 23.3% turnover ration is one of the worst in the country and something that plays very much into the Cardinal's favor.
It should come as no surprise that this team is at its best scoring in the post and on the offensive glass. The Eagles have the third highest offensive rebound rate in the country thanks to the tremendous production from Faried (averages 14.5 rebounds per game and nearly 6 offensive rebounds) and the senior has become significantly better at scoring on the block as his career has progressed. Morehead has also performed well above average in spot-up play types thanks to the efforts of senior guard Demonte Harper and junior Terrance Hill. Harper has been a standout, scoring 16 points per game (second highest behind Faried) and connects on nearly 40% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc.
Like the Cardinals, Morehead forces a lot of turnovers, but are a much better rebounding team. Limiting the number of second chance opportunities will be key and with Faried posing a definite mismatch inside with the absence of Buckles, he will be free to do that. The Eagles are also among the best transition defense teams in the country, limiting opponents to just .85 points per possession on 44% shooting. Getting back and finding shooters on the wing will be paramount in this match-up. With that said however, the Eagles are a poor defensive team in spot-up scenarios, ranking in the bottom third of all Division 1 programs in efficiency in this regard.
This game will come down to two match-ups: Faried vs. the Louisville frontcourt and the Cardinals shooters vs. the Eagles perimeter defenders. Faried is going to get his double-double, that's almost a given regardless of who the competition is but especially a weakened Louisville interior. The Cardinals will win this game however assuming they don't suddenly go cold from the outside. If Louisville isn't hitting their threes watch out.