Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015


Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

Notre Dame did three things to score efficiently on Kentucky’s defense. The first is simple.

1) Spread the floor.

Notre Dame took Kentucky's bigs out of the lane.

Notre Dame took Kentucky’s bigs out of the lane.

Notre Dame put three-point shooters into the corners and dared Kentucky to cheat into the lane on them. This game plan moved Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein out of the lane where they are most effective, forcing them out to the perimeter and into situations where they had to guard All-American guard Jerian Grant. Kentucky’s greatest strength is its interior defense and Notre Dame took away that mismatch by spreading the floor.

2) Set up mismatches through pick-and-rolls. Notre Dame took advantage of Kentucky’s desire to switch on pick-and-roll situations by putting Grant into situations where he was guarded by a Kentucky big man. Cauley-Stein has great lateral quickness on the perimeter but Grant is one of the few players in the country who can take advantage of him. After hitting a three on Cauley-Stein earlier in the game, Grant crossed him over in the second half to drive for two more points.

Grant crosses over the bigger Cauley-Stein.

Grant crosses over the bigger Cauley-Stein.

Calipari knew that Towns had no chance of keeping with the quicker Grant, so he had the big man hedge in pick-and-roll situations when Grant was the ball-handler. That strategy didn’t work either, though, as Grant used penetration to give the ball up quickly to the roll man. In this case, it was Zach Auguste.

Kentucky doesn't switch on this pick and roll and Grant gives it up.

Kentucky doesn’t switch on this pick and roll and Grant gives it up.

Once Auguste had an open lane, we all know how that turned out.

Auguste hangs in the air, and then on the rim.

Auguste hangs in the air, and then on the rim.

3) Take advantage of cheating big men. We’ve now established that the Irish successfully spread the floor and set up mismatches through their pick-and-rolls. Finally, the Irish drove the lane and waited for Kentucky’s shot-blockers to cheat from the wings. In this play, you can see that Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia has a clear lane to drive on Devin Booker.

An open lane for Vasturia.

An open lane for Vasturia.

As soon as Vasturia gets a foot into the lane, Trey Lyles cheats down to help because Bonzie Colson isn’t a three-point threat. Vasturia attracts Lyles, leaving Colson an opportunity to make a backdoor cut for an easy basket. In several first half plays, Kentucky instead stayed at home on three-point shooters in the corners, leaving the on-ball defender isolated in a one-on-one situation.

Lyles digs in to help since Colson isn't a threat from beyond the arc.

Lyles digs in to help since Colson isn’t a threat from beyond the arc.

Notre Dame spread the floor with its three-point shooters, which opened up the lane and kept Kentucky’s shot-blockers out on the perimeter. The game plan didn’t result in a victory for the Irish, but it worked enough to give us the most watched college basketball game ever on a cable network. Wisconsin is the only other team remaining in the field with the personnel to execute something similar. Luckily for college basketball fans everywhere, we could see Kentucky tested once more with a similar blueprint. The difference, however, is to not expect the same Kentucky defense. Calipari is excellent at making adjustments between games and we should expect to see the Kentucky bigs more prepared for how to react against Wisconsin’s stretch shooters.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *