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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Kentucky vs. Kansas: Previewing Tonight’s Champions Classic Battle

Posted by Kory Carpenter & David Changas on November 18th, 2014

When it was introduced in 2011, the Champions Classic quickly rose to become the crown jewel of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon. The event was such a success that last November, all four teams – Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State – renewed the deal without hesitation. Tonight marks the start of the second rotation, and the nightcap will pit the two winningest college hoops programs of all-time (4,269 wins, at last count) against each other. Big 12 microsite writer Kory Carpenter (@Kory_Carpenter) and SEC microsite writer David Changas (@dchangas) took some time to preview the matchup.

Kory Carpenter: Few coaches have a shared history like Bill Self and John Calipari. Each began his career as a Larry Brown disciple at Kansas in the 1980s, and they were famously reunited over 20 years later in the 2008 National Championship game, with Self (thanks to Mario Chalmers) taking the first championship match-up between the two. Calipari got even with Self four years later (thanks to Anthony Davis), beating Self and Kansas in the 2012 National Championship game. Aside from Coach K at Duke, there is nobody in the country recruiting like these two; and, depending on whom you ask, they could easily be considered the two best coaches in the country. In the first year of the Champions Classic in 2011, Kentucky cruised to a 75-65 win behind 17 points from Doron Lamb and seven blocks from future NPOY Anthony Davis. Kentucky is favored once again, thanks to a roster that includes more McDonald’s All-Americans than Calipari might know what to do with. Blue-blood problems, indeed.

In a battle of coaching titans, John Calipari and Bill Self enter tonight's contest looking to one-up each other once again. (AP)

In a battle of coaching titans, John Calipari and Bill Self enter tonight’s contest looking to one-up each other once again. (AP)

Both teams should contend for the National Championship this season, but there are always questions this early, especially when facing teams of this caliber. The biggest concern for Kansas has to be post play, specifically rebounding. Kentucky starts three guys as tall or taller than anyone in Kansas’ starting lineup. Then you have 6’9” Marcus Lee, 6’10” Trey Lyles, and 7’0″ Dakari Johnson coming off the bench. The Jayhawks started a pair of 6’8” guys — Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis — against UC Santa Barbara on Friday night. Beyond that, Landen Lucas (6’10”) and Cliff Alexander (6’8”) combined for 21 more minutes. As a result, UCSB forward Alan Williams had a field day against the Jayhawks’ frontcourt, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. But with all due respect to the future mid-major draft pick, he’s got nothing on players like Lyles, Johnson, and Towns. Kansas’ Ellis has struggled in the past against bigger, physical players, but that will have to change quickly if Kansas has a chance here, because Traylor doesn’t have a polished offensive game and Alexander looks like he will take some time to become a dominant player. Read the rest of this entry »

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Assessing Some Positives Amid an SEC Meltdown

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 17th, 2014

Hard as it may be to believe, SEC teams did do some good things on opening night (try not to fall out of your chair). Here are several positives that might have fallen through the cracks amid the conference’s Friday night meltdown.

Kentucky Bigs Own the Glass. The rebounding numbers that the Wildcats put on Grand Canyon Friday night were absurd. John Calipari’s gaggle of ultra-talented bigs grabbed 64.7 percent of the teams’ missed shots, which was good for 22 offensive rebounds. The Antelopes only had 20 total rebounds on their side, finishing the game -27 on the glass. Every Kentucky forward who played grabbed at least four boards, and while there are some open questions about the Wildcats’ outside shooting, that doesn’t really matter when they absolutely dominate on the glass. Opening night was a perfect example of this: Kentucky was just 3-of-14 from three-point land but still won the game by 40 points because Grand Canyon couldn’t take advantage of those misses.

Dakari Johnson led Kentucky's rebounding feast against Grand Canyon with 13 boards (bigstory.ap.com).

Dakari Johnson led Kentucky’s rebounding feast against Grand Canyon with 13 boards (bigstory.ap.com).

The Aggies Offense. Texas A&M burned up the nets in Reed Arena on Friday night against Northwestern State, averaging a whopping 1.30 points per possession in their 109-68 win against the Demons by shooting 57 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. Seven Aggies scored in double figures, led by Antwan Space and Jalen Jones with 16 apiece. Tavario Miller was the biggest opening night surprise for Billy Kennedy, as the sophomore who averaged just 1.8 points per game last season went a perfect 6-of-6 from the field and scored 15 points. Texas A&M’s offense is a hot topic because it brings back a good defensive team from a year ago. Northwestern State wasn’t an ideal litmus test (#206 in KenPom’s rankings), but the offensive clinic the Aggies put on against them was still a very good way to start the season.

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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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Morning Five: 04.24.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on April 24th, 2014

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  1. Yesterday was a big day for Kentucky as both Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson announced that they will be returning to Lexington for at least one more season. Poythress has seen his stock drop during his two years at Kentucky to the point that he would have been a second round pick had he declared, but Johnson had the potential to be a late first round pick so it is somewhat surprising to see him stay. Kentucky still may have issues in the backcourt if the Harrison twins decide to turn pro, but they will have the nation’s deepest, tallest, and most talented frontcourt next season with Poythress, Johnson, Marucs Lee, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
  2. The news around Louisville transfer Chane Behanan is a little less clear. Behanan, who left Louisville after repeated issues with marijuana use, had announced his intent to transfer to Colorado State several months ago, but now reports are surfacing that he may have signed with an agent with plans to enter the NBA Draft. If he were to enter the NBA Draft, Behanan would be a late second round pick at best and most likely would go undrafted particularly with his off-court issues. Colorado State has not really commented on it other than to say that they “will support him in whatever decision he makes” while Behanan offered a vague denial.
  3. Two other big names–Jerian Grant and Jordan Mickey–announced that they will be returning to school next year. Neither player would have been a first round pick (at least not a guaranteed one) coming out this year so it makes sense for them to come back to school. Grant’s season was derailed when he was ruled academically ineligible. Grant had been averaging 19 points and 6.2 assists per game before his suspension so it is possible he would have left South Bend if he had a full season to showcase his game. Mickey posted solid numbers as a freshman averaging 12.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game. While Mickey certainly has potential he was projected as a late second round pick at best so his decision to come back also makes a lot of sense and could help make LSU a second-tier team in the SEC next season.
  4. People can complain all they want about Duke being on national television all the time and there is a degree of truth to those complaints, but Duke is certainly getting its share of prominent non-conference showdowns. In addition to their annual Champions Classic game (against Michigan State this year), a ACC/Big Ten Challenge road game, and the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic , Duke is close to scheduling a game against defending national champion Connecticut. The Huskies will be without Shabazz Napier, but could have Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels back and will be adding Rodney Purvis. Duke will look completely different with the departure of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood combined with the appearance of their top-rated incoming freshman class.
  5. At this point we are not sure how Craig Robinson still has his job (oh right, the brother-in-law) as Oregon State continues to disappoint. As if losing all five starters from a team that went 16-16 last season was not bad enough, he also will be losing Hallice Cooke, who was supposed to be the team’s top returning player at  8.2 points and 2.6 assists per game last season, after Cooke announced that he was transferring saying “Smh I gotta know what that NCAA tourney feels like ASAP”. We never really bought into the idea that players would want to play for Robinson just because his brother-in-law is the President, but his performance has been fallen short of even our tempered expectations. Now Robinson heads into next season with his top returning player being Langston Morris-Walker, who averaged 4 points per game last season. We are usually hesitant to put anybody on the hot seat, but time seems to be running short for Robinson.
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Looking Back at Kentucky’s Remarkable Run

Posted by David Changas on April 11th, 2014

On March 1, Kentucky‘s season hit its lowest point when the Wildcats lost to SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina, 72-67. Talk of a 40-0 season was a distant memory, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed likely. After that loss, Kentucky went on to lose twice to SEC champion Florida, but it was during the second of those losses – a one-point SEC Tournament Championship Game thriller that the Wildcats had a chance to win – that gave coach John Calipari’s team confidence that all was not lost. Kentucky received a #8 seed from the selection committee, and the path ahead of it would consist of games with the region’s top seed and the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record in 23 years, Wichita State, as well as a possible rematch with arch-nemesis Louisville. The regional final projected as a game against the team that lost to Louisville in last year’s national championship game, Michigan, or SEC rival Tennessee. The Wildcats were able to beat Kansas State with relative ease in the opening round, and then proceed to win thrillers against the Shockers, Cardinals, and Wolverines to advance to their third Final Four in Calipari’s five years at the helm of the program.

Kentucky Will Play For The Program's Ninth National Title On Monday Night

Kentucky Celebrated Its Way to the National Title Game

At the outset of the season, Kentucky was the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, and there was some serious talk in the Bluegrass State that the Wildcats could reach 40-0. That dream was dashed with an early-season loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, and then Kentucky followed that with pre-conference defeats to Baylor and North Carolina. If those losses didn’t cause significant concern, the Wildcats’ play in the lowly SEC did. They were swept by the Gators and by Arkansas, and narrowly avoided a sweep by LSU. By the time the SEC Tournament arrived, many wondered whether it was too late for the club to figure things out and salvage their season. After dominant wins over LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats appeared headed for another blowout loss in the title game to Florida. They trailed the Gators by 16 early in the second half, but eventually cut the lead to one point with the ball before James Young slipped and lost control, costing the Wildcats a chance to win. While Kentucky wasn’t able to complete the comeback, that game was the impetus for the turnaround. Willie Cauley-Stein called the performance “a big confidence-booster” afterward, and said that the Wildcats were a “new team” coming out of Atlanta. While winning the daunting Midwest region appeared to be a near-impossible task for a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 10 losses, the 78-76 second-round win over Wichita State in what many considered the best game of the Big Dance served notice that the Kentucky team many had expected had finally arrived.

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Breaking Down the Top 10 SEC Likely Returnees

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 10th, 2014

No player on the lengthy 2013-14 all-SEC first team will be back next season (barring a couple of unlikely reversals), leaving the conference leaderboards completely up for grabs. The top returnees feature a heavy number of sophomores, and could be shaken up depending on some of the announcements out of Lexington over the next few days. Here are the top 10 SEC players to watch for in 2014-15.

Bobby Portis will anchor Mike Anderson's 2014-15 Arkansas squad (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis will anchor Mike Anderson’s 2014-15 Arkansas squad (wholehogsports.com).

  1. Bobby Portis, Arkansas. Portis’ offensive efficiency stood out most during his freshman year, but he also was in the SEC’s top 10 in rebounds and blocks per game. He also has experience as a marked man as he became the Razorbacks’ primary option as the season wore on. Portis should flourish in his sophomore campaign, especially if Mike Anderson relents and plays him more than 30 minutes per game.
  2. Jordan Mickey, LSU. Mickey had a better statistical season than Portis, but he did so with Johnny O’Bryant commanding the bulk of attention. O’Bryant is now gone, and Mickey will become the Tigers’ top option in the low post. If his jumper continues to improve (39.3% on two-point jump shots) he’ll be a load on offense. Mickey also had the sixth most blocks in the country as a freshman.
  3. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky. Harrison and his brother are expected to return to Lexington, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they both left school either. If they do stick around, they’ll look to turn solid play in the NCAA Tournament into breakout sophomore seasons. Andrew gets the nod here merely because his position is more important, but he’ll need to improve on the 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio he posted as a freshman. He could become a Tyreke Evans-type lead guard who looks to score first and creates offensive rebounding opportunities for his frontcourt with penetration and shots at the rim. Read the rest of this entry »
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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: The National Championship Game

Posted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 7th, 2014

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#7 Connecticut vs. #8 Kentucky – National Championship Game (at Arlington, Texas) – 9:10 PM ET on CBS

History will be made in some form tonight at AT&T Stadium no matter which team wins this game. Connecticut is bidding to become the first #7 seed to ever win the national championship while Kentucky is looking to become the first #8 seed since Cinderella team Villanova toppled top-seeded Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64/68-team era. Kevin Ollie could become the first coach to win a championship in his first tournament appearance since Michigan’s Steve Fisher accomplished that feat a quarter-century ago in 1989 at Seattle’s Kingdome. John Calipari could win his second title in three seasons, this time with the nation’s most inexperienced team (according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics). Something has to give in this game between what some observers have said are teams of destiny. Connecticut is going for the Texas triple play, so to speak, having closed out two previous Final Fours in the Lone Star State (2004 in San Antonio and 2011 in Houston) with championships while Kentucky has three players from the state on its roster, including hometown favorite Julius Randle. Connecticut is seeking its fourth national championship while Kentucky would earn its ninth with a win.

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Coach Cal is looking for his second title in three seasons tonight against Connecticut. (NYDN)

Kentucky has had some of its best offensive games of the season in this tournament. The Wildcats have not been defensive juggernauts, but timely stops and consistent offensive output have been the keys to their success over the last couple of weeks (along with clutch Aaron Harrison shots, of course). Going up against yet another strong defensive team in Connecticut (UK has already faced Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, all terrific on the defensive end) will be a test for the “Cardiac Cats.” At the point guard position, Andrew Harrison has to do a better job taking care of the basketball against the undersized, but quicker and pesky Huskies guards. He is averaging four turnovers per game in the tournament and making him uncomfortable needs to be part of the game plan for Ollie’s team. Daring Andrew Harrison shoot has been fairly successful for Kentucky’s opponents as he is just 18-for-52 (35 percent) from the floor in five tournament games, which even includes a solid 6-for-9 performance against Wichita State in the round of 32. By contrast, making his brother Aaron put the ball on the floor and drive is the best strategy for Connecticut. Aaron Harrison has made 14-of-25 threes (56 percent) in the tournament but he is just 8-for-27 (30 percent) when it comes to two point shots. Chasing him off the three point line and making him put it on the deck has to be a point of emphasis for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright defensively. Kentucky is at its best when Andrew Harrison is moving the ball well, Aaron Harrison is open on the wing and James Young is either knocking down triples or slashing through the defense, opening up the lane for Randle in the post. Of course, Randle is so good and so strong that he can do a number of things on the low block. The freshman has 50+ pounds on Connecticut’s four man DeAndre Daniels and nearly 40 pounds on Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, both of whom are good defensively but also quite raw by the same token. Ollie may very well wrinkle in some zone to keep Kentucky out of the lane and dare it to make shots. However, that is still risky because of the ability of Aaron Harrison and Young to connect from the three point line. The Huskies are sneaky good when it comes to interior defense, allowing just 42.2 percent field goal shooting inside the three point arc. That will be tested against the stronger Randle and Dakari Johnson, who is very difficult to guard when he catches the ball deep in the post. Great interior defense is a staple of the Jim Calhoun era and a part of the Connecticut culture that Ollie has carried over while building the program his way.

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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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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Final Four

Posted by Brian Otskey on April 4th, 2014

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#1 Florida vs. #7 Connecticut – National Semifinal (at Arlington, TX) – 6:09 PM ET on TBS

The Final Four tips off with a Florida team that has won 30 consecutive games facing the last team to beat it, Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off the Gators in Storrs way back on December 2 on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. Although it was four months ago, much can be learned from that game. Contrary to popular belief, Florida’s top six rotation players suited up for it, although Scottie Wilbekin left the game with about three minutes to play due to injury. In that contest, Florida absolutely dominated the paint by holding Connecticut to 41.4 percent shooting from two-point range and winning the rebounding battle by eight. However, the Gators lost the game at the three-point line, where they allowed the Huskies to make 11-of-24 attempts. Sixteen Florida turnovers also didn’t help matters for Billy Donovan’s team.

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Napier Has His Eyes Set on Another Title (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Fast forward to April and the Gators’ front line is formidable as ever. While Connecticut’s interior play has improved and its rebounding has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament, facing Patric Young and the nation’s top-ranked defense will be a tall task for the Huskies. Connecticut is talented but young and raw up front. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan are just a freshman and sophomore, respectively, while DeAndre Daniels loves to drift away from the paint and is not a back-to-the-basket kind of player. For Kevin Ollie’s team to have success, Napier must continue his dominant performance and Daniels has to make jump shots. Napier and Ryan Boatright are the two constants on this team, but it is Daniels who takes it to another level when playing well. He will likely be guarded by Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith or Young, or any combination of the three. If Daniels cannot get anything going, Napier will have to score 30+ points and Connecticut will have to have another terrific night from the three-point line in order to advance to Monday night’s national championship game.

Defensively, there is no doubt that Connecticut can match Florida. The Huskies’ defense has been phenomenal all season long and doesn’t get the credit it deserves with Napier stealing the spotlight most of the time. Connecticut ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and actually has a slightly stronger interior defense than Florida when you look at opponents’ two-point percentage (one percentage point better than Florida). An important part of Ollie’s game plan will be to limit Scottie Wilbekin and prevent him from easily getting Florida into its sets and taking over the game. Easier said than done, of course.

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Final Four Previews In-Depth: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2014

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As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Today: Kentucky.

Kentucky was ranked #1 in the preseason polls and that was with good reason. The Wildcats were bringing in one of the most highly-acclaimed recruiting classes in recent memory and were returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both of whom were also highly-regarded recruits before they arrived in Lexington the year before. Soon after the season began, it became clear that ultimate success was going to be quite the process for John Calipari’s young Wildcats. It would have been easy (and possibly logical) to count out Kentucky after a few confounding late regular season losses had one well-respected national pundit openly questioning the way in which Calipari was handling his squad. But things began to turn as Kentucky moved through play in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats easily dispatched LSU and Georgia before giving Florida everything it could handle in a one-point loss in the SEC championship game. What’s happened since the Wildcats began the NCAA Tournament? This in-depth Final Four preview, the first installment of our four-part series, should give you a pretty good idea. Kentucky is to be taken seriously as legitimate threat to cut down the nets next Monday evening, and this, in long form, is the explanation why.

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Pre-Tournament Capsule. Kentucky showed its youth in its non-conference slate, as the young Wildcats dropped their first three games when pitted against premier competition. In the Champions Classic in Chicago on November 12, Michigan State was able to fend off a late Kentucky run to earn a 78-74 victory. Playing at Cowboys Stadium on December 6, the Wildcats were handed a five-point loss at the hands of a talented Baylor squad. Eight days later, John Calipari’s squad dropped another game, this time in Chapel Hill against an enigmatic squad in North Carolina. Prior to the start of SEC play, Kentucky was able to grab at least one marquee victory when Louisville visited Rupp Arena on December 28 when it appeared like things were taking shape for the talented team. However, when SEC play commenced, the dominance that was expected from the team did not come to fruition. Playing second fiddle to Florida saw Kentucky finish SEC play with a 12-6 mark, and of those 12 victories, only an eight-point January victory over Tennessee was a win over an NCAA Tournament team. When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, Kentucky was given an eight-seed, and due to its uninspiring résumé, arguments were generally dismissed about the Wildcats being underseeded.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 75, #2 Michigan 72

Posted by Walker Carey on March 30th, 2014

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 Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is RTC’s NCAA Midwest Regional Correspondent.
Three Key Takeaways.
  1. This was an unbelievable game. Just one week after Kentucky beat one-seed Wichita State in what, at the time, was considered to be the best game of the tournament, the Wildcats were once again locked in another epic. In a game that saw seven ties and three lead changes, both Kentucky and Michigan showcased some excellent basketball. The Wolverines exploded out of the gates and built a 10-point lead with 5:10 to play in the first half. The Wildcats then roared back to end the half on a 15-5 run to tie the game at the break. Soon after the second half began, it was Kentucky that stormed out the gates, but Michigan had an answer for every Wildcats run. Kentucky led by seven with 6:31 to play, but the resiliency of John Beilein‘s squad was on display, as it stayed the course and eventually tied the game at 72 with 27 seconds to play. From there, the game belonged to Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who hit a very difficult and contested three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats the 75-72 lead (which turned out to be the final score).
  2. Marcus Lee was a revelation. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and James Young are the Kentucky freshmen that everyone knew about and with good reason, as those five have played a ton of minutes and made a lot of plays that helped Kentucky have the opportunity to even play Sunday. One freshman, however, who had not received much attention this season was forward Marcus Lee. The McDonald’s All-American did not see too much playing time during his freshman season in Lexington. His last points before Sunday came on February 22 and he did not even play in the tournament wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined with an ankle injury, John Calipari turned to Lee to play big minutes Sunday and that paid off in a big way. Lee gave the Wildcats 10 big points off the bench, while collecting eight rebounds (seven offensive) and being part of an interior defensive attack that made things very difficult for Michigan inside all game. Considering how highly touted Lee was coming out of high school, his production in Sunday’s victory should not be all that surprising. It was just a matter of a talented player getting a chance to make an impact and Lee took full advantage of that chance.
  3. Aaron Harrison is Mr. Big Shot. Aaron Harrison was struggling. At halftime, the freshman had zero points, two fouls, and was having a hard time stopping Nik Stauskas on the defensive end of the court. Instead of losing confidence in himself and letting the poor play continue, Harrison rose to the occasion in the second half, by knocking down four of his five three-point attempts and hitting the game-winner with 2.6 seconds to play. While that shot got Kentucky to the Final Four, it was not the only important shot Harrison hit during the weekend. In Friday’s regional semifinal victory over Louisville, Harrison nailed a three with 39 seconds to play that gave Kentucky a lead it would not relinquish. Having a clutch performer is very important in the postseason and Aaron Harrison has shown that he is very capable of hitting the big shot.

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