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.
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.