RTC Rewind: Kentucky Flexes Muscles, Rough Pac-12 Weekend, More…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 29th, 2014

Never a dull week… Never a dull week, I tell you. The holiday season was supposed to be the last down time for college basketball, but this past weekend – the last without wave after wave of important conference games – was anything but silent. From a clash at the summit in Kentucky to another stunner from Texas Southern – yes, really – it was another fine weekend on the hardwood.

Weekend Headliner: Kentucky 58, Louisville 50.

If it was going to happen, it was going to happen here; at least, so it seemed. Only one game stood between Kentucky and a feeble SEC slate. Only one major challenge remained. Only Louisville. And thus, there’s no place to start but here when rehashing the final 2014 weekend of college hoops. Because it – a Kentucky loss – didn’t happen.

It Was Another Defensive Masterpiece From the Wildcats (USA Today Images)

It Was Another Defensive Masterpiece From the Wildcats (USA Today Images)

John Calipari’s team further cemented itself atop the collegiate basketball landscape with an ugly but effective victory over its bitter rival. The most striking thing about Saturday’s game was the difficulty Louisville had finding shots and scoring on the offensive end. If a top-five team with an All-American forward and an electric home crowd looked overwhelmed, how must other teams feel? The Wildcats’ smothering defense held the Cardinals to an ice cold 26 percent shooting and 0.85 points per possession. Most importantly though, Kentucky was able to do exactly what makes its defense so special: It forced Louisville to take an inordinate number of contested mid-range jumpers. A whopping 34 of the Cardinals’ 58 field goal attempts (58.6 percent) came from between five and 20 feet from the basket, an area from which they’ve shot 29 percent on the season. This was a significant departure from Louisville’s standard shooting distribution, and its a big reason why they had such trouble with Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

Through their first 12 games, the Cardinals had been able to get 35 percent of their shots at the rim and 35 percent from beyond the arc. But on Saturday, those percentages were 17 and 24 percent, respectively. That’s because Kentucky’s defense is beautifully designed to take away those opportunities. Withe excellent shot-blockers inside like Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, the Wildcats’ perimeter players can guard the three-point line as tightly as they want. They can run opponents off of the arc – even opponents like Louisville’s who are better drivers than shooters – because they know that getting clean looks at the rim will be nearly impossible. Whenever Chris Jones or Terry Rozier got any semblance of dribble penetration Saturday, they jumped at the opportunity to take a rushed, often off-balance mid-range shot. That is inherently a low-percentage look, but the scary thing about Kentucky is that it might be the best look a team is going to get. Through six weeks, this has the look of being one of the all-time great shot-clock era defenses in college basketball.

Will Kentucky Finish the Regular Season Undefeated? Let’s make sure the wording of that question is clear. It’s “will,” not “can.” Of course the Wildcats can go undefeated. They’re quite clearly the best team in college basketball, and have already beaten the four best teams that were on their schedule. KenPom says there’s now a 24.1 percent chance that the team remains perfect heading into the SEC Tournament in early March. So obviously there is a possibility. The question, though, is will they, and I’m not ready to go there just yet. I still think they’ll fall at least once, because even in a weak SEC, it’s impossible to get mentally ready for every single game. Their downfall won’t be a strong opponent; it will be the natural fluctuations in focus and intensity that plague college athletes and, frankly, some luck. Inexplicable things happen throughout a season, and probability tells us that on one of the remaining 18 days that Kentucky takes the floor, everything will come together for the other team and the Big Blue giant will fall. It’s not that an unbeaten regular season is assured to not happen; it’s just that there are still plenty of underestimated roadblocks along the way.

Same Old Story For BYU. It’s happening again. Just as it had in each of the previous three seasons, BYU is coming up just short. Saturday’s seven-point loss to Gonzaga was by no means a harmful one, but it was Dave Rose’s team’s last plausible shot at a true quality win. The frustrating thing is that when you watch BYU play, it’s pretty hard to say they’re not good. That was the case in past years, and it is again this year. They have dynamic scorers and improving role players. But all that their résumé will tell the committee in March is that the Cougars lost at neutral sites to San Diego State and Purdue, and at home to Utah and Gonzaga. So when the Cougars ran out of gas late on Saturday in Provo, it likely condemned them to a situation where they’ll head into Selection Sunday with a measly one top-50 win against Stanford (unless the unlikely event of winning a game at Gonzaga in late February comes to pass). That’s simply not good enough. In two of the past three season, BYU was able to squeak into the NCAA Tourney field, but this time around, barring a 15-3 or 16-2 WCC run, BYU might be on the wrong side of the bubble.

Lorenzo Romar and Robert Upshaw Didn't See This One Coming (USA Today Images)

Lorenzo Romar and Robert Upshaw Didn’t See This One Coming (USA Today Images)

Washington Goes Down. Against Stony Brook? At home? Yes and yes. Washington remained one of the early season mysteries in college basketball last weekend when they snuck by Oklahoma in Las Vegas. And now, more questions will be asked. The Huskies shockingly blew a 16-point second half lead on Sunday night and couldn’t recover as Stony Brook closed the game in Seattle on a 28-8 run. The biggest concern for Washington remains its ability to score down the stretch. Lorenzo Romar lacks a solid go-to guy, especially when Nigel Williams-Goss is misfiring, and that deficiency was exposed on Sunday. In the end, this could just be a case of a pre-conference play trap game, but the Huskies will now be underdogs in their next two games over the weekend – at Cal and at Stanford. We’ll learn a lot by one week from today. For now, let’s hold off on any judgment.

Harvard’s At-large Hopes are Dead. That might seem like a strong statement to make in December, but after Sunday’s loss at Arizona State, it’s completely true. The Crimson’s only route to the NCAA Tournament now is through the Ivy League’s automatic bid. Harvard failed to pick up a true quality win in non-conference play, and even fell to lowly Holy Cross back in November. Should they slip up multiple times over the next two months and allow, say, Yale or Columbia to unseat them atop the conference, the Crimson will be on the outside looking in come March.

UCLA Reeling. There’s no shame in losing to Gonzaga or Kentucky, but after a full week off, UCLA slumped to another defeat, this time at Alabama, and the Bruins will travel to Colorado on Friday in danger of sliding completely out of the early NCAA Tournament picture. Steve Alford’s team just looks a tad disjointed right now. The Bruins made several crucial mistakes down the stretch in their 56-50 loss in Tuscaloosa on Sunday, and they have become overly reliant on Bryce Alford on the offensive end. They haven’t yet beaten a major conference foe this season, and could be in for a long Pac-12 slate if they don’t evolve into a more cohesive offensive unit.

Player of the Weekend: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Georgetown knocked off Indiana at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon, but the Hoyas wouldn’t have been able to do so without the exploits of Smith-Rivera. The junior guard outdueled Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., knocking down five of his seven three-pointers and finishing with 29 points in his team’s 91-87 overtime win.

Play of the Weekend: Texas Southern’s Insanity

It’s more than just a single play; it’s the entire bizarre sequence that allowed Texas Southern to pull off another major upset – granted, this one of lesser magnitude – over Kansas State on Sunday. The Wildcats were up four points when they fouled a Texas Southern three-point shooter with 3.8 seconds left. After two made free throws, a miss and a putback, and an errant inbound pass, Texas Southern, against all odds, converted on the unlikeliest of chances to win.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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