Freeze Frame: The Ceiling for Kentucky’s Elite Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 19th, 2014

The Big Blue Nation doesn’t forget. None of the players on the court during last night’s Kentucky-Kansas game were alive way back in 1989 — with the possible exception of Perry Ellis, who looks like he ran out of college eligibility during the Clinton administration — but the fans remember their school’s basketball history like it was yesterday. And they hold a grudge. Two decades on, Kentucky fans have been known to purchase “I still hate [Christian] Laettner” t-shirts and have never forgiven the Duke star for his infamous foot stomp and turnaround jumper back in 1992. They can’t help but wonder “what if Nazr Mohammed had made just a couple free throws” in the 1997 title game against Arizona. They remember exactly where they were when Dwyane Wade exploded on the scene for Marquette in 2003. The 2011 Cats could have — scratch that, should have — won a backdoor national title if they hadn’t gone completely blank against UConn. All of that and more. But there is another loss — a regular season one, no less — that ranks near the top of a long list of defeats that Kentucky fans haven’t let go.

Rick Pitino during Kentucky's 150-95 loss to Kansas in 1989 (photo courtesy of KUsports.com).

Rick Pitino during Kentucky’s 150-95 loss to Kansas in 1989 (photo courtesy of KUsports.com).

The date was December 9, 1989, and the score was 150-95. For Kentucky, that season signified just how far the mighty had fallen. Not a lot was expected from the decimated Wildcats in Rick Pitino’s first year on probation, but that didn’t mean fans took it lightly when the tables were turned. Coming into last night’s game in Indianapolis, Kentucky was 5-3 against Kansas since that demoralizing night, but the margin of victory never approached the beatdown that Roy Williams put on the Wildcats even if the scale of importance was elevated. Tubby Smith’s group knocked the Jayhawks out of the NCAA Tournament in 1999; and there was a certain National Championship game in 2012 that went the Wildcats’ way too. But Kentucky hadn’t gotten revenge for the embarrassing 55-point drubbing it endured in Allen Fieldhouse. Until last night.

Kentucky’s defense was outstanding, and it stood out in three distinct ways: effort; rim protection; and defensive rotations. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s dominating defensive performance against Kansas, and the potential for this year’s team to be among the best interior defensive teams of all-time.

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SEC Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 14th, 2014

The SEC microsite is wrapping up previews on each team this week, and with the start of the season approaching we begin wrapping up with the league favorite, Kentucky.

Kentucky Wildcats

Strengths. Kentucky has size, depth, athleticism, and nine McDonalds All-Americans at its disposal. The Wildcats welcome back a number of veterans, with 59 percent of last season’s scoring returning to Lexington. They welcome in another highly-ranked recruiting class, of which we have become accustomed to see at least one or two destined to succeed and proceed to the NBA. John Calipari roams the sidelines with a 2012 National Championship and five Final Four appearances under his belt. Someone might bring up vacated appearances, but it doesn’t take away the fact that Calipari was there, and the point here is that he has the necessary experience to guide Kentucky to the promised land once again. Another Final Four run, an SEC championship, and title number nine all seem well within the grasps of the eager paws of a more than capable platoon.

John Calipari's team has Final Four experience, and like it or not, so does he.

John Calipari’s team has Final Four experience, and like it or not, so does he.

Weaknesses. Kentucky’s laundry list of strengths does not imply that this team is without a weakness. One of the areas of most concern is at the three position. Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles will both play out of position at the three, causing match-up nightmares for the opposition but also presenting a challenge in a couple of ways. First, both are still developing the ball-handling skills that Calipari is accustomed to having on the wing. Second, a potentially more difficult challenge to address will be defense. Poythress and Lyles will be forced to guard smaller, quicker wing players. Poythress is fairly quick and a good shot-blocker — and there are always several good defenders waiting underneath on Kentucky’s front line — but a true small forward with excellent quickness could give these bigger defenders some trouble. We’d also be remiss for failing to mention the possibility that someone becomes unhappy with his playing time this season. Dissatisfaction can occur on any team within any program, so we have to acknowledge the possibility of unmet expectations here. However, it seems that Kentucky is very well-situated with its depth to deal with a disgruntled player. If someone lets up in practice or games, he knows that somebody else is more than ready to fill his spot. In such a case, Calipari has the luxury of looking down a long bench to find a replacement.

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SEC Season Preview: Arkansas Razorbacks

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 7th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Arkansas.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Strengths. This is year four under head coach Mike Anderson, and he finally has the depth and firepower to run his “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball” style of play. Last year’s star freshman Bobby Portis returns for his sophomore year, along with Ky Madden, Michael Qualls, Alandise Harris, Anthlon Bell and Moses Kingsley, just to name a few of the expected contributors. In addition to depth, the Razorbacks have size with Kingsley and Portis standing at 6’10”, junior forward Jacorey Williams at 6’8”, West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles at 6’7”, and even Madden checking in at 6’5” from the point guard position. Anderson took both UAB and Missouri to three NCAA Tournament appearances each, respectively, and it is past time for his first trip as the head coach at Arkansas.

Mike Anderson is Big Dance or bust this season (Arkansas Business).

Mike Anderson is Big Dance or bust this season (Arkansas Business).

Weaknesses. Anderson’s Hawgs have struggled mightily on the road throughout his tenure. Arkansas won one road game in each of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons before making a huge leap to three away victories last season (including a win in Rupp Arena over Kentucky). This season will present an arduous test for the Razorbacks venturing away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena, with match-ups scheduled at SMU, Iowa State, and Clemson. Anderson’s squad could certainly use a signature win in non-conference play that demonstrates it can win outside of Fayetteville.

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Three Takeaways From SEC Media Day

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 23rd, 2014

The SEC rolled out the red carpet for the media on Wednesday as part of #SECTipoff15 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The league’s basketball campaign may have kicked off in the heart of ACC country, but geographic proximity to the nation’s top college basketball conference did not detract from placing SEC basketball at the center of attention here. Rush the Court was there, well, when we weren’t searching for more of those delicious chicken biscuits from the breakfast spread. Here are the three key takeaways from a fun and interesting day of talking college basketball and hitting the buffet line.

The SEC Network studios and the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, NC played host for SEC media days.

The SEC Network studios and the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte played host for SEC media days.

1)    Platoon system – The word of the day was platoon. Of course, Kentucky coach John Calipari set the tone by talking about how and why he would implement two separate five-man squads to achieve better team chemistry among the 10 or 11 players he plans on putting on the court this season. On advice from other coaches, Calipari admitted that “most of them think I’m crazy,” but he further explained that he is considering the switch to allow players to become comfortable playing with the same group.

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SEC Offseason Reset

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 15th, 2014

The gym is open and the ball is bouncing. College basketball is here. Well, almost. The clang of the ball bouncing off the rim will soon turn into the sweet sound of the nothing but net shot that comes with practice, practice and more practice. The offseason was eventful in the SEC, and now that the dust has settled, here are a few conference predictions, observations, and questions for each team as they begin their 2014-15 journey.

John Calipari is in a good mood with this many All Americans on his roster (AP).

John Calipari is in a good mood with so many prep All-Americans on his roster (AP).

  1. Kentucky: Kentucky dominated the headlines this offseason, and for good reason. After a national title game run last April, expectations could not be higher for this group. The Wildcats played well in six games in the Bahamas during an August trip, earning high praise from observers despite a loss in their final game. The exhibition tour gave John Calipari‘s group of new highly-touted freshmen an opportunity to log significant minutes, a valuable advantage for this time of the year. The big story in Lexington is the possibility that Calipari will rely on a platoon system to provide sufficient minutes for the abundance of talent on his roster. Whether it works is something to watch for this season, but with returnees Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison joining another impressive recruiting class, it is hard to imagine this group failing to dominate the SEC.
  2. Florida: The Gators looked like a team that could have won it all last season on its way to a Final Four, a 36-3 overall record, and a perfect 21-0 in SEC play. The key pieces in that run are now gone, but coach Billy Donovan reloads yet again in Gainesville. Sophomore Chris Walker figures to play a more significant role, as do Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith. Florida has always thrived with the team-first approach, but it will rely heavily on the sharp shooting of junior Michael Frazier to carry the scoring load. The Gators will again find themselves in the upper echelon of the conference standings.

How will the rest of the conference shake out?

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Conducting a Reset on Kentucky’s National Championship Aspirations

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 4th, 2014

I have been wrong before. Many times actually, but the most recent time was a real doozy. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was playing basketball in the gym after work. I was doing my best Willie Cauley-Stein impression when I landed on one of my teammate’s foot and my ankle rolled onto its side. I knew instantly this was a reasonably bad injury. My best guess, based on my experience and susceptibility to reading Web MD, was to diagnose myself with a high ankle sprain.  I went about my entire weekend, standing on my feet to do some yard work, went grocery shopping, and walked 12,000 steps each day based on the Fitbit around my wrist. I did what I normally do on any given weekend because I am stubborn and had already determined that I had a high ankle sprain, and nothing more.

Was I also wrong about John Calipari's Wildcats?

Was I also wrong about John Calipari’s Wildcats?

Of course, the bruising and swelling in my right foot worsened from the activity, and the pain became excruciating. My ankle and toes had almost turned completely purple (I will spare you the pictures I was tempted to include). Based on the appearance and the pain, I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to go to the doctor about 72 hours after the injury occurred. To make a long story short, after a couple of x-rays and a CT scan, I found out I fractured my distal fibula and cracked my tibia. My certainty of a high ankle sprain could not be more untrue.

The self-diagnosis of my ankle is vaguely familiar to my erroneous analysis of Kentucky.  I did not anticipate the tweak working. I did not envision Aaron Harrison learning to shoot in the season’s last six games. I never imagined Andrew Harrison would become a pass-first point guard with vision and leadership. I did not foresee Julius Randle getting away from back to the basket post moves where he has not been as effective this season, and instead focus on putting himself in positions where he is efficient. In short, I did not predict Kentucky making a huge splash in the NCAA Tournament.  I certainly knew the Wildcats had the talent and interior presence to compete with Wichita State. I realized they had beaten Louisville before and could certainly do it again. I recognized Kentucky could dismantle Michigan’s porous defense if it played to its potential. But who knew it would all come together for four straight games in the manner it did? It was just too late for all of these elements to come together, I told myself, but you know I have been wrong before. Now that I have admitted the error of my ways, it is time to do a reset on Kentucky’s prospects of a national championship.

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Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

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Appreciating Near-Perfection in an Instant Classic Between Kentucky and Wichita State

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 24th, 2014

There were a number of storylines entering Sunday’s Kentucky vs. Wichita State game about 1-and-dones, so-called “mid-majors,” David vs. Goliath, and of course, quests for undefeated seasons. Neither the Wildcats nor the Shockers would ultimately reach the 40-0 prize this season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they would not come exceptionally close to perfection.

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

It’s no secret that Kentucky struggled this season, deteriorating into a poor defensive squad that often appeared lost on offense. When the Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina near the end of the regular season, it seemed as if the team was spiraling out of control. Among most everybody who follows the program, it appeared highly unlikely that John Calipari’s team had the guts and drive to participate in the best game of the season, and one of the best postseason games in years. But there they were yesterday, standing tall, after winning a 78-76 thriller over Wichita State.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Rapid Fire Round

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 13th, 2014

The SEC tournament is underway, and the SEC microwriters have so many key questions to answer to preview the SEC Tournament. Today’s burning questions are a rapid fire round of all the major story lines we haven’t covered yet heading into the beginning of the tournament. Which potential matchup are you most looking forward to this weekend? Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? How many wins does Arkansas need for an NCAA berth? What about Missouri? Which team cuts down the nets on Sunday? The SEC microsite writers answer all of these questions in rapid succession as we head into round two of action in Atlanta.

Will John Calipari's "tweak" alter Kentucky's course? We'll know soon.

Will John Calipari’s “tweak” alter Kentucky’s course? We’ll know soon.

David Changas (@dchangas)

Which potential match-up are you most looking forward to this weekendTennessee-Florida.  Assuming the Volunteers have turned a corner and can get by likely quarterfinal opponent Arkansas, have they improved enough to take down a Gator squad that has certainly already secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? Objectively, there isn’t a lot to be excited about with respect to Kentucky’s recent play. However, there are a few factors that make me think they’re going to reach the championship game on Sunday. First, they have an unmatched history in this event, and have been particularly good in Atlanta in the past. Second, they’ll have an overwhelming crowd advantage, as Big Blue Nation always descends upon the Georgia Dome in hordes. Third, they have a relatively easy draw. They avoid the Florida/Tennessee/Arkansas side of the bracket and should have only LSU and Georgia or Ole Miss standing between them and the title game. I’ll be surprised if they don’t make it there.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Who Will Be the Surprise Player in Atlanta?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 12th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question goes in depth on the individual performances we could see this weekend. After being snubbed for an All SEC first team selection in 2013, Marshall Henderson went on a tear through last year’s SEC tournament guiding Ole Miss to a surprise championship and claiming MVP. Who will be the surprise breakout player of this year’s tournament?

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season?  (US Presswire)

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season? (US Presswire)

Christian D’Andrea (@trainisland): Georgia sophomore Kenny Gaines was the second-leading scorer for the third-best team in the SEC, but was completely snubbed by the media in this week’s All-SEC honors. In fact, Gaines may be the conference’s most overlooked guard. He’s hitting the SEC Tournament after averaging 18.6 points per game over his last seven and shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from long range over that span.  He could outshine players like Marshall Henderson, Jordan McRae, and Trevor Releford if he can carry his recent hot streak with him to Atlanta.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Coach Has the Most on the Line During This Postseason?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 11th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament all week by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question has to do with the personalities on the sidelines. Postseason tournaments can make or break a coach’s reputation. Which coach has the most on the line during this postseason?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): The coach with the most on the line during this postseason is Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. Volunteer fans are clamoring for former head coach Bruce Pearl to return to the sidelines in his orange blazer after serving time on a three year show cause penalty. Pearl took the Volunteers to six NCAA appearances in his six seasons in Knoxville, including an Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Pearl was wildly successful in orange, but one thing he never did was win an SEC tournament championship. Meanwhile, Martin hasn’t even made it to Saturday in the SEC tournament, much less Sunday for the championship game. Tennessee hasn’t won more than one game in the SEC tournament under Martin. The Vols didn’t make an NCAA tournament appearance either in his first two seasons at the helm, instead settling for early round exits in the NIT. Tennessee finally has a chance to return to the Big Dance as long as the Vols don’t slip up in the quarterfinals on Friday against fellow bubble team Arkansas, or worse, bottom dwellers Auburn or South Carolina. There is unrest in Knoxville, and it will only get louder with a slip up in the Georgia Dome. An untimely loss in the SEC tournament could ultimately leave Martin’s team on the wrong end of the bubble come Selection Sunday, and then the murmur among fans could become a full on uproar. The only way to quiet the desire for Pearl is to create your own success, and Martin and Tennessee have a chance to do that this March.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?

Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.

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