Three Takeaways from Kentucky vs. South Carolina

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 25th, 2015

When you take in a live game, sometimes you can sense that the home team thinks it can win. Everything about the aura in Colonial Life Arena on Saturday told me the Gamecocks felt they had a chance to beat the top-ranked Wildcats. The crowd was into it; the team gave 100 percent effort; and after a three-pointer from Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina led by one with just 4:31 left in the first half. That was where it all ended, though. A big-time victory wasn’t meant to be for a Gamecocks squad that looked much improved from their last couple of times out, but there were several key takeaways that we will see play out through March for Kentucky and the rest of the SEC.

Frank Martin was proud of his team's effort on Saturday against the number one team in the country (Bruce Thorson/US Presswire).

Frank Martin was proud of his team’s effort on Saturday against the number one team in the country (Bruce Thorson/US Presswire).

  1. “Stop saying the SEC isn’t any good” -  South Carolina coach Frank Martin was emphatic in making sure the assembled media knew his stance on the legitimacy of the conference. As he was answering another question, he couldn’t let the moment pass: “By the way, stop saying the SEC isn’t any good,” he said to the room. He has a point. At the time of this writing, the SEC has eight teams ranked among the top 60 of the RPI. Kentucky (#1), Arkansas (#24), Georgia (#26) Texas A&M (#32), LSU (#44), Alabama (#52), Tennessee (#54), and Ole Miss (#59) all are in position for consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid. Additionally, according to Ken Pomeroy, the SEC is the fourth-best conference in the country, behind only the Big 12, Big East and ACC. The SEC has proven its worth this season, and Selection Sunday should assist in shedding the unfair label that the league is just Kentucky and everybody else. Read the rest of this entry »
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Freeze Frame: Florida’s Pick-and-Roll Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 20th, 2015

This edition of Freeze Frame could have easily gone several different ways. We could have looked at Florida’s season-high 19 turnovers against Georgia on Saturday; dissected Michael Frazier’s inability to create his own shot off the dribble; analyzed Billy Donovan’s lack of a go-to guy; or even criticized his Gators’ struggles to get to the free throw line. Those takeaways, while all relevant, did not represent Florida’s most glaring issue in the 12-point loss. Florida senior Jacob Kurtz said it best afterward: “Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t very good.” We went back and analyzed the Gators’ defense on Georgia’s screens, and Kurtz was right. It’s just that simple.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Georgia found a number of ways to exploit that defense, shooting 8-of-15 from beyond the arc, getting to the free throw line 29 times, and making Florida’s defenders appear completely lost for most of the game. But as you will see below, their best strategy was the complete variety in their screens. This Freeze Frame will slow down Mark Fox’s offense to determine exactly what they did to confuse the Gators.

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Freeze Frame: Arkansas’ Half-Court Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 13th, 2015

As Florida still works out its offensive kinks, Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks are quietly becoming a legitimate SEC contender. The Hogs are riding a seven-game winning streak that includes wins in the first two conference games for the first time in the Anderson era. We have already examined Arkansas’ up-tempo style this year, but it is now the defense that is giving the Razorbacks an edge in conference play.

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals as well.  (thesportsseer.com).

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals too. (thesportsseer.com).

It is typically Arkansas’ full-court pressure that creates havoc for its opponents, but it was the Razorbacks’ half-court defense that gave Vanderbilt fits as Arkansas created 31 points off of 22 Vandy turnovers on its way to an 82-70 win. Arkansas has forced SEC opponents into a 30 percent or greater turnover percentage seven times since Anderson’s arrival (see table below), so it will be very difficult to beat the Razorbacks when the opponent turns the ball over on almost a third of its possessions. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will review how the Hogs made scoring so difficult for the Commodores and how that performance fits historically in the Anderson era.

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Freeze Frame: Alabama’s Shift to Man to Man Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 18th, 2014

Alabama nearly came up with a huge victory for itself and the SEC when it lost by one at Wichita State on Tuesday night. Anthony Grant’s team felt secure with an 11-point lead and 5:50 remaining, but the Tide’s Achilles Heel — fundamental defense — came back to haunt them once again. Grant’s defense has struggled all season, and after nearly 35 minutes of solid pressure on the road (forcing the Shockers into 40.8 percent shooting), it failed them once again.

Alabama's defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

Alabama’s defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will look at the final 15 minutes of Alabama’s defense against the Shockers. The Tide to that point had found a lot of success with a 2-3 match-up zone that frustrated Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and their Wichita State teammates into a bunch of contested outside shots. But with the momentum clearly in the hands of Alabama, Grant made a huge mistake in shifting back to his man-to-man defense. Van Vleet was then able to penetrate the lane to find open teammates, rendering the pick-and-roll option more effective, and ultimately erasing a late double-figure lead.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Alley-Oop Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 12th, 2014

Up until Wednesday night against Ivy League opponent Columbia, only Texas and Buffalo had stayed within 20 points of the No. 1 team in the country. While the Wildcats still beat the Lions by double figures, they looked somewhat beatable for much of the game as Columbia slowed things down to 51 possessions. Columbia maintained good spacing on the offensive end of the court, forced Kentucky to shoot primarily from the outside (17 of 60 shots), and cut off the Wildcats’ go-to offensive move, the alley-oop.

Kentucky's dunk totals on the year (through December 11 and the Columbia game).

Kentucky’s top dunk totals on the year (through December 10’s Columbia game).

Kentucky typically uses its athleticism and length to get easy looks at the basket. Against Eastern Kentucky last Sunday, the Wildcats ended up with 14 dunks and 10 lob plays in a rout at Rupp Arena. Just three days later, a well scouted game plan helped Columbia limit the Cats to just two alley-oops, both of which came in transition. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at how Kentucky gets so many easy lobs at the rim and how Columbia cut off that option without the same size and athleticism of all the future NBA players who reside in Lexington.

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Freeze Frame: Can Arkansas Play Fast and Efficiently?

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 28th, 2014

As the old saying goes, defense wins championships. Fresh off of a .500 win-loss record and a losing campaign in the Big 12 conference, Mike Anderson’s 2008-09 Missouri Tigers increased its defensive turnover percentage and forced opponents into the lowest field goal percentage of his head coaching career. The extra steals, blocks, and opponents’ missed shots led to better play on the other end of the court too. By virtue of an increase in run outs, the Tigers got easy points in transition also improving its offensive efficiency. Since we’re sticking to worn out clichés, they say the best defense is a good offense. For Anderson and Arkansas, the best offense is in transition, which begins with solid play on the defensive end.

Mike Anderson is looking for his first NCAA postseason berth since coming to Arkansas.  (http://grfx.cstv.com).

Mike Anderson is looking for his first NCAA postseason berth since coming to Arkansas. (http://grfx.cstv.com).

Anderson’s teams are synonymous with playing fast. However, throughout his head coaching career, only his 2009 Missouri Tigers played fast (top 25 in adjusted tempo per KenPom.com) and remained in the top 25 of adjusted offensive efficiency (per KenPom.com). Not coincidentally, that 2009 Big 12 tournament championship was also the last championship trophy that Anderson has hoisted over his head. In this edition of Freeze Frame we analyze his current Arkansas squad’s recent away win over SMU to determine if the Razorbacks can reach the same level of success that has escaped Anderson since leaving Columbia, Missouri.

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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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