RTC Final Four Snapshots: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by zhayes9 on March 31st, 2011

Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Here are Butler, Connecticut and VCU. We conclude the series with the third school that John Calipari has taken to the Final Four: Kentucky.


It's been big shot after big shot for Brandon Knight this March

Crucial Tourney Moments: Without Brandon Knight’s late-second driving layup against Princeton, his only field goal of the entire game, the Wildcats may not be standing here today as the favorites to win the program’s eighth national championship. Survive and advance has been the mantra for the Wildcats throughout their difficult road to the Final Four. UK needed another Knight game-winner, this time a step-back jumper from the right wing on Ohio State’s ace defender Aaron Craft, to knock off the overall #1 seed in the Sweet 16. A kickout three to Billy Gillispie holdover DeAndre Liggins made the difference in UK’s second upset win on Sunday. No one can argue the Wildcats didn’t earn a spot in Houston after downing teams the caliber of West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina in successive fashion. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Knight’s shot had rimmed out and Princeton battled Kentucky into an extra session.

Advantage Area: Kentucky boasts the most scoring options of any Final Four participant, a direct compliment of both John Calipari’s ability to reload on the recruiting trail and develop three and four year program players like Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Knight is the best pure scoring point guard Calipari has ever had at his disposal. The star freshman is outstanding in handoff ball screen situations with Harrellson where defenders have to opt to either go under the screen and test Knight’s advanced jump shot or fight through where they’ll likely need help on his dribble penetration. Kentucky fell short of expectations last year in the NCAA Tournament largely due to a lack of outside shooting. This season, with the likes of Miller, Liggins and the ultra-efficient Doron Lamb, Calipari can spread the floor and that aforementioned help defense on Knight’s penetration opens up ample room for capable shooters. Kentucky can spread the floor, move the basketball, force help and knock down perimeter jump shots, the primary reasons for their tremendous offensive execution against North Carolina in the regional final.

Potential Downfall: The possibility of foul trouble for Josh Harrellson is a major concern. We knew Knight and Terrence Jones had some serious talent, but with Enes Kanter ruled ineligible the main concern with Kentucky since the offseason was always their frontline. Harrellson has already proven he can hold his own against two of the best big men in the country in Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller, so Alex Oriakhi isn’t a tremendous concern. But what if Harrellson picks up two early fouls and Eloy Vargas has to play 13 minutes in the first half? Kentucky has been fortunate through their run that Harrellson has stayed on the floor for 33+ minutes in every game other than the SEC Tournament final rout over Florida. While Jim Calhoun has four legitimate big bodies he can play if you count Niels Giffey, Calipari has Harrellson and Vargas. Let’s just hope the former can stay on the floor.

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RTC Final Four Snapshots: VCU Rams

Posted by zhayes9 on March 30th, 2011

Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Here are his Butler and Connecticut previews. The third breakdown focuses on the most unlikely Final Four team of our lifetime: VCU.

VCU coach Shaka Smart has led the Rams from the CBI to the Final Four

Crucial Tourney Moments: The craziest part of VCU’s improbable run to the Final Four is not just that they’ve beaten five teams from BCS conferences, but that they’ve throttled their supposed superior opposition by a healthy 12 PPG. This isn’t a so-called Cinderella barely avoiding midnight time and time again, this is a sustained demolition of power programs: USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and, the most shocking of them all, Kansas. Because two of those wins were lopsided and only the Sweet 16 matchup with FSU truly in doubt as the seconds ticked down, let’s recap the sheer improbability of this run instead, summed up by these three facts: VCU has scored 1.17 points per possession during the tournament and four of their opponents ranked in the top 26 in defensive efficiency, their #185 effective FG% defense held the #1 effective FG% offense to their lowest FG% of the season, VCU’s season-high of 11 threes was eclipsed in three different games during the NCAA Tournament. I could go on.

Advantage Area: Unlike defense, VCU has been a capable offensive squad for the majority of the regular season. While their pinpoint 44% mark from deep during the NCAA Tournament is clearly higher than their season average, the Rams boast capable shooters across the board with three regular rotation players connecting on over 40% of their attempts. VCU is extremely aggressive with their dribble-drive offense that forces teams to help on penetration and risk surrendering open looks from three to the likes of Bradford Burgess, Brandon Rozzell and even versatile big man Jamie Skeen. Unlike UConn (freshman most of the time), Kentucky (freshman) and Butler (junior), the Rams boast a senior floor general in Joey Rodriguez that’s accumulated over 4,300 minutes as the orchestrator of this up-tempo attack. Even though Rodriguez likes the push the pace, he’s compiled 38 assists to just nine turnovers during the NCAA Tournament.

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RTC Final Four Snapshots: Connecticut Huskies

Posted by zhayes9 on March 29th, 2011

Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. We continue the breakdown with Jim Calhoun’s fourth Final Four squad at Connecticut.


UConn celebrating their improbable Final Four berth

Crucial Tourney Moments: Connecticut had relatively smooth sailing through their first two tournament games against Bucknell and Cincinnati, but had to withstand strong rallies from both San Diego State and Arizona to advance to their second Final Four in three years. Jeremy Lamb made crucial buckets down the stretch in both affairs, none more important than his triple after an offensive rebound with under a minute to play against the Aztecs that provided UConn sufficient breathing room. Of course, it’s been Kemba Walker’s heroics late in games that have defined this team all season long. His setback jumper gave the Huskies a five-point lead with 1:18 to play against Arizona and sent them on their way. Connecticut has won an incredible nine games in 19 days.

Advantage Area: Jim Calhoun has changed lineups all season, alternating between a bigger unit with both Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu on the floor and a smaller lineup with Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel at the 4. Calhoun also begins the game with Kemba Walker orchestrating the offense at the point, but soon brings Shabazz Napier off the pine for 25-30 minutes that allows Walker to focus on scoring as a 2-guard. This type of flexibility and changeover could pose matchup problems for the Wildcats, especially if they involve Josh Harrellson in ball-screening action with Oriakhi that either forces a switch or allows Walker just enough time to penetrate in the lane where he’s virtually uncontainable. Not only does Napier allow Walker or Lamb free reign to run off baseline screens, but his pesky on-ball defense could frustrate the engine that runs the Kentucky offense, their point guard Brandon Knight and either Shelvin Mack or Joey Rodriguez in the final.

Potential Downfall: During the Huskies first meeting with Kentucky in Maui, freshman Terrence Jones torched them for 21 points on 11 shots, mostly because neither Oriakhi nor Okwandu could slow down Jones on dribble penetration. If Calhoun elects to put a quicker defender on Jones, the 6’8 frame of the former Washington commit opens up opportunities to post up and operate down low in the post as he did on a few occasions when Carolina big man John Henson was on the floor with four fouls. Jones has to be aggressive and demand the basketball, though, which is not always a given. Matching Kentucky from three could also be a downfall if Connecticut falls behind late. The Wildcats are the polar opposite of last year’s version, shooting a precise 40% from three as a team, seventh in the nation. UConn, on the other hand, shoots at just a 34% clip from deep, 201st in the country.

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RTC Final Four Snapshots: Butler Bulldogs

Posted by zhayes9 on March 28th, 2011

Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. We begin the dissection with the Butler Bulldogs and their incredible run to back-to-back Final Fours.

Mack and Vanzant form a capable scoring tandem in the Butler backcourt

Crucial Tourney Moments: Unlike last season when the Bulldogs pulled away from UTEP, Syracuse and Kansas State late in games to advance to the Final Four, each step towards Houston this season has been decided by one or two crucial plays Butler turns to their advantage. There’s Shawn Vanzant throwing the ball off the backboard that eventually resulted in a Matt Howard layup just before the horn to beat Old Dominion. There’s Gilbert Brown missing the second of two free throws in a tie game that opened the door for Nasir Robinson’s brain cramp for the annals. How about Howard corralling an offensive rebound to finally put to bed the Badgers after a ferocious rally or Butler’s little-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins finding Howard on a key assist and draining a huge three from the left wing when it appeared Florida was about to pull away? These types of winning plays have defined Butler in their two unfathomable March runs.

Advantage Area: Both Butler and VCU are strikingly similar when it comes to efficiency ratings, but where Butler stands out if the game is close is their ball screen action with Shelvin Mack and his proficiency in one-on-one situations late in the shot clock. While VCU’s point guard Joey Rodriguez is more of a distributor and their wings are superior in catch-and-shoot situations, Mack has the ability to operate in “take ‘em” situations when the offensive set has crumbled, the shot clock is heading towards single digits and Butler badly needs a basket. While Mack has struggled percentage-wise with his shot this season, he carried the Bulldogs in their upset of Pitt and his one-on-one prowess was never better exemplified than in the waning second of Butler’s Elite Eight win over Florida when a pick-and-roll resulted in a switch and Mack pulled up for a dagger three. VCU doesn’t have one designated player to match Mack basket-for-basket late in a one or two possession contest. Butler is also extremely physical defensively and their ball screen defense was a huge reason for their win over ball-screen heavy Florida.

Potential Downfall: While Butler didn’t turn the ball over with great abundance all year, they never had to test their mettle against a full court press as capable as VCU’s during their conference season or NCAA Tournament run. The Rams will trot out their 1-2-1-1 press in an attempt to speed the tempo and force turnovers after made shots and, if the final five minutes of Butler’s Sweet 16 near-collapse against Wisconsin was any indication, Brad Stevens needs to spend some practice time this week gearing up for VCU’s full court pressure. It’ll be imperative for Mack and fellow guards Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored to focus on ball security and not allow the Rams to dictate tempo. Their press befuddled Kansas at times on Sunday and that built-up fatigue was clearly evident in KU’s jump shooting woes.

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