Kentucky Needs More Post Production For Deep March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

Given the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have played over the last couple of months, there really can’t be much debate about whether Kentucky has the best backcourt in the country. In Saturday’s thrilling 93-80 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia, Ulis and Murray combined for 51 points — the 11th consecutive game in which Murray had scored 20 points or more. The Wildcats also got a strong second half performance from Isaiah Briscoe, something upon which they haven’t been able to regularly rely. Everyone knows that good guard play is an important key to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and Kentucky’s recent performance bodes well for John Calipari‘s surging team.

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

If Kentucky is going to be a legitimate Final Four contender, the Wildcats are going to need more production from their big men. Things have definitely improved in that regard, as Skal Labissiere put together a couple of solid performances to end the regular season, Alex Poythress has shown signs of returning to his old form after fighting nagging injuries, and Derek Willis has also shown flashes of excellent play (even if much of his offensive damage he does comes from the perimeter). Kentucky beat Georgia on the strength of its backcourt — the three starting guards combined for 63 points — while Poythress (10 points, all in the second half) and Willis (14 points) had solid offensive performances of their own. Talented NCAA Tournament opponents that are more capable of neutralizing the Wildcats’ prolific backcourt are going to have a chance to beat them. Each of the team’s eight losses have come in games in which the front line was not very productive.

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Texas A&M’s Scenic Route to the SEC Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 7th, 2016

In some ways, the final Saturday of the SEC regular season played out like many thought it would in October. Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere altered shots left and right; LSU’s Ben Simmons nearly put together a triple-double; and KentuckyLSUVanderbilt and Texas A&M all entered the weekend with a shot at a share of the regular season title. Ultimately it was the Aggies and Wildcats that became this season’s SEC co-champions, and while that result isn’t at all surprising, the path that led both teams there certainly is.

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

The Wildcats’ share of the conference title is a testament to the coaching and player development of John Calipari. Kentucky appeared vulnerable in December losses to thoroughly mediocre UCLA and Ohio State teams, but Calipari coaxed a surprise season from Derek Willis and successfully navigated injuries and inconsistency to win the league. The title is assuredly a little sweeter for an Aggies program that notched its first conference championship since sharing the 1986 Southwest Conference title with TCU and Texas. During that same period, the Wildcats have won a share or more of 10 SEC regular season titles.

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Kentucky is Suddenly in Control of the SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 19th, 2016

On February 2, Kentucky inexplicably blew a 21-point first half lead against a mediocre Tennessee team in Knoxville as the Vols upset the Wildcats. John Calipari’s team at the time sat 6-3 in league play, while Texas A&M, at 7-1 and on a major roll, appeared in complete control. LSU, which had won at Auburn on the same night, was also ahead of the Wildcats at 7-2 and the Tigers finally appeared to be hitting their stride. Just 17 short days later, the Aggies have now lost four of five games and LSU is coming off a perplexing home loss to Alabama. For its part, Kentucky has not lost since, and after exacting some revenge against Tennessee on Thursday night with an 80-70 win in Rupp Arena, it’s difficult to argue that the Wildcats are not once again the team to beat with five games remaining. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is producing at a Player of the Year level (Getty)

The Wildcats have flourished despite losing their most consistent low-post threat and third-leading scorer, Alex Poythress, to injury. But thanks to dominant backcourt play from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as well as an increase in production from junior forward Derek Willis, Kentucky has seized control of the league race and appears ready to climb the national rankings back into the top 10. Willis, who hardly played during his first two seasons in Lexington, scored a career-high 25 points in Thursday night’s win and has capably filled a void left by Poythress’ absence and the inability of freshman Skal Labissiere to consistently produce.

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Freeze Frame: Tyler Ulis in the Pick and Roll

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

Everybody loves Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. His teammates love his competitiveness. His coach thinks he should be one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year. The national media is coming around too. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster ranks the point guard sixth in his National Player of the Year power rankings. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recently said that Ulis is probably the best point guard in the country. Even Dan Dakich, who has feuded with Kentucky fans all year long, included Ulis among his top five point guards.

All the praise heaped on the 5’9” floor leader is with good reason. Ulis is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game on the season, but a switch seemed to flip on around Christmas. Since the Wildcats’ rivalry game with Louisville on December 26, Ulis has averaged 19.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of those outings. Nobody has been more valuable to his team this season, proven by the fact that Ulis has played in all but 38 minutes of game action since SEC play began. Where Ulis has been especially good is in his ability to utilize pick-and-roll situations at the top of the key. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Ulis so effectively uses screens to elevate the Kentucky offense.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

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Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IX

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 26th, 2016

The regular season title is solidly Texas A&M‘s to lose at this point as the Aggies are two games clear of a trio of second place teams. But if college basketball has taught us anything this year it’s that the game can be fickle. Here’s what the Aggies and rest of the league were up to last week.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Team of the Week. For now the storm has passed in Lexington. Kentucky followed up the loss at Auburn with a good win over Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena and a dominant performance at home against Vanderbilt. Lost amid the hand-wringing over the front court has been another very good Wildcat defense. They were excellent in that regard on Saturday, making non-factors out of Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, and Mathew Fisher-Davis. “That’s the best defensive game we’ve had,” Tyler Ulis told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “That’s what we need to do every game because in order for us to win, we have to be a defensive team.”

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Freeze Frame: Is It Time For a New “Tweak” In Kentucky’s Offense?

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 8th, 2016

During the 2013-14 season, John Calipari’s team lost six games in SEC play (including three of its last four) on its way to a 22-9 regular season mark. Kentucky, which had entered the season at No. 1 in the country, was considered a huge disappointment at the time. Calipari knew that something had to change if his team was going to turn things around, so heading into the 2014 SEC Tournament, he introduced “the tweak.” The beauty of his strategy was that Calipari wouldn’t say what he actually tweaked.

Calipari's tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention off his struggling juggernaut (cbssports.com).

Calipari’s tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention away from his struggling juggernaut. (Getty)

Calipari’s tweak became a national story as media and fans searched for the mystery in every game. “If you know anything about basketball, you’ll know exactly what I did,” he explained. Yet despite thousands of rumors swirling around, nobody could pinpoint precisely what it was. As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com (who, as a beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, has followed the head coach’s career longer than most) wrote after Calipari revealed the tweak (he asked point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more), the brilliance of the strategy was that it shifted the conversation away from the play of his struggling Wildcats. This year’s team could certainly use a distraction from its disappointing play on the road, but it could also use a substantial tweak to its offensive approach. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s recent loss to LSU and analyze a strategic tweak that could change the Wildcats’ 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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SEC M5: 10.25.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 25th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. Last week, Ole Miss got the go-ahead to borrow $80 million to build a new basketball arena. Initial plans for the arena were approved last March, and it will be located to the west of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Tad Smith Coliseum has the smallest capacity (9,061) of any current SEC arena, just behind Auburn Arena (9,121). The new arena won’t add that much more seating (9,500) but it still a needed upgrade, especially given the Coliseum’s leaky ceiling incident in 2011. Andy Kennedy can also use the promise of new facilities to continue the momentum generated for the program by last season’s SEC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament win.
  2. CBS’ Jon Rothstein put together a list of his top 20 freshmen under the radar. Three SEC freshmen made the cut: Ole Miss forward Sebastian Saiz, Tennessee guard Darius Thompson, and LSU guard Tim Quarterman. Saiz and Thompson make a lot of sense as both will be looked to to replace key departing players. At 6’9″, Saiz needs to help fill the frontcourt void left by the graduations of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Thompson should get minutes at point guard that would have gone to Trae Golden had he not transferred to Georgia Tech. Quarterman is a 6’6″ point guard who will add a different dimension to the LSU offense when the smaller Anthony Hickey is not at the position. The Michael Carter-Williams comparisons are inevitable for the ESPN top 100-recruit. Johnny Jones will probably be pleased as a peach if Quarterman gives LSU a fraction of what Carter-Williams gave Syracuse the last two seasons.
  3. Mike Anderson is adding a slew of talented forwards to his third Arkansas team. The highest profile frontcourt newcomers are ESPN top 50 recruits Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. Houston transfer Alandise Harris is also in the mix after sitting out last season, and he brings experience, something the other two don’t yet have. Plodding up and down the court in Anderson’s pressure system is not easy on big men, making a deep rotation a necessity. Portis and Kingsley should be instant contributors, but Harris’ experience will be valuable if they initially struggle while transitioning to the college game.
  4. The least heralded Kentucky freshman, Derek Willis, is surprising John Calipari.”“Derek Willis is going to be a really good player,” Calipari said. “He’s learning (and) he’s creating good habits. This team is going to be a hard team to steal minutes (from), but I’ll tell you what, he’s playing as well as anybody.” Yesterday, I shared a quote from former Kentucky assistant Joe Dean about the risks of taking certain Kentucky high school stars like Willis. “When I was there, there was a train of thought with Kentucky high school players that if you were going to bring them to Kentucky, they had to be capable of starting at Kentucky at some point in their career. If they were not, then the fan base in Maysville, Paducah, Danville, Pikeville would be upset because they think those kids are the greatest thing in the world.” I’m not sure this approach applies as much these days. Recruiting gets such expansive coverage that fans have a good understanding of a player’s realistic outlook before he plays his first game. I find it hard to believe a fan of any team would be dismayed if someone as exceptionally talented as Julius Randle gets minutes so that someone like Derek Willis does not. In my opinion, taking a flyer on a local player is rarely a bad idea.
  5. Missouri will take the court in the Hearnes Center tonight for the first time since 2003-04. The Tigers have not played in the building since moving to Mizzou Arena for the 2004-05 season. The exhibition game against Oklahoma City University commemorates the 20th anniversary of Missouri’s 1993-94 Big Eight championship team, which included an undefeated conference mark. That season also included a 52-point loss against Nolan Richardson and Arkansas in the second game ever played at Bud Walton Arena. Talk about not letting one game define a season. Yesterday I wrote about Kentucky and UTEP planning to play a game in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 NCAA title game. It’s neat that schools are finding creative ways to keep history alive (though the UTEP-Kentucky game is far more significant). This a win-win situation, as it educates younger fans while providing older fans with nostalgia.
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Who’s Got Next? Kentucky Receives Commitment From Dakari Johnson

Posted by CLykins on January 8th, 2013

whos-got-next

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Chad Lykins, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions dedicated solely to Duke Basketball at Duke Hoop Blog. You can also follow Chad at his Twitter account @CLykinsBlog for up-to-date breaking news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: ESPN Recruiting used for all player ranking

Top Center Dakari Johnson Announces For Kentucky

Whether you love them or you loathe them, there is no denying the pure dominance on the recruiting scene in recent years from the Kentucky Wildcats. Since head coach John Calipari took the position in 2009, he has secured the No. 1 recruiting class in three of the past four years — Kentucky’s 2012 class was ranked No. 2 by some outlets — and 12 five-star recruits during that span. However, the Wildcats’ 2013 class is shaping up to be arguably the best recruiting class ever (at least on paper). Entering this past Saturday, Kentucky had a five-man class while still in the mix with four prospects ranked inside the top 15. As the day concluded, that five-man class turned into six as the Wildcats gained a verbal commitment from Dakari Johnson out of Montverde Academy (Florida).

com_130105_RN_Dakari_Johnson_commits_to_Kentucky

Dakari Johnson joins a historic recruiting class for Kentucky in 2013

Johnson, the No. 1 center and No. 12 overall ranked prospect, picked the Wildcats over Georgetown and Syracuse following Montverde’s game against Simeon Career Academy (Illinois) at the Cancer Research Classic, in which he notched 18 points and 15 rebounds in the victory with Calipari in attendance. The 6’10”, 250-pound center cited winning, honesty with Calipari and his staff, and his pursuit to develop into the best player that he can become  as the deciding factors in his recruitment. “I just want to win a national championship,” Johnson said. “The coaching staff told me this was not the place to come if I didn’t want to work hard. But I want to work and I want to get pushed. And I think Kentucky is the place for me.”

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Who’s Got Next? Andrew Wiggins Reclassifies to 2013; Indiana Lands Troy Williams…

Posted by CLykins on October 30th, 2012

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Chad Lykins, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions dedicated solely to Duke Basketball at Duke Hoop Blog. You can also follow Chad at his Twitter account @CLykinsBlog for up-to-date breaking news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Andrew Wiggins Reclassifies into Class of 2013

It’s official. After many months of rampant speculation regarding the consensus No. 1 prospect in the nation, Andrew Wiggins is reclassifying into the class of 2013. A native of Canada and a student at Huntington Prep High School (West Virginia), he will assume his rightful spot at the top of the national rankings in the 2013 class. Confirmed by Huntington Prep head coach Rob Fulford, Wiggins and his family announced on Thursday after a decision had been reached. “It just happened,” Fulford said. “Andrew didn’t even know for sure until a little earlier today when his parents got him word. He was waiting on his parents. That was the real wait with it. It was just a family decision.”

Consensus No. 1 Prospect Andrew Wiggins Makes Move to 2013 Official

With the decision, which has been a work in progress for months, Wiggins’ move will make the class of 2013 one of the more impressive top-to-bottom classes in recent memory. The 6’7″ small forward is coming off an outstanding summer with his most notable performances coming while playing at the Nike EYBL with CIA Bounce AAU and at the LeBron James Skills Academy. After those two important events, he received high praise as the clear-cut No. 1 high school prospect in the land.

When scouting his overall game, he has the complete package on the basketball court. He is an explosive athlete with tremendous size on the wing. He can hurt you in a variety of ways with his shooting ability, whether it’s from the mid-range or from deep. One of the more impressive traits of Wiggins’ game is how he can effortlessly get to the rim and consistently finish under contact. While using that great size, he is also a ferocious rebounder. His ball-handling is one of his best traits and he excels in an up-tempo environment. Regarding any specific weakness to his game, his shooting touch could be a little more refined. Also, he has a work ethic that has been in question at times, as he sometimes seems “bored” during game. Developing a work ethic to match that of some of the best basketball players at the college and professional levels will separate him from his peers.

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Who’s Got Next? Kentucky Adds Two More Studs; Selden Decides For Kansas…

Posted by CLykins on October 17th, 2012

Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Chad Lykins, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to who the hot prospects are at the lower levels of the sport. We also encourage you to check out his contributions dedicated solely to Duke Basketball at Duke Hoop Blog. You can also follow Chad at his Twitter account @CLykinsBlog for up-to-date breaking news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Young and Lee Join Historic Kentucky Class

Young’s Addition Bolsters UK’s Already Star-Studded Class (US Presswire)

If your familiar with the phrase “the rich get richer”, that describes Kentucky basketball recruiting. After landing a pair of top-five prospects from the class of 2013, twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison, the Kentucky Wildcats received verbal commitments from two more highly ranked 2013 prospects, in the form of James Young last Thursday and Marcus Lee on Wednesday afternoon. Young is a 6’6″ shooting guard out of Rochester High School (Michigan) and is the No. 5 ranked prospect in the ESPN 100. Lee, a 6’9″ power forward out of Deer Valley High School (California), is the No. 28 ranked recruit. Along with Kentucky, Young listed Kansas, Michigan State and Syracuse in his final four while Lee had just listed California as his only other possible destination. Young and Lee will now join the Harrison twins and unranked prospect Derek Willis as a part of Kentucky’s 2013 recruiting class.

“Kentucky has always been my dream school,” said Young, who revealed his choice by holding up a “Kentucky Bound” blue T-shirt. “I’m not just looking for the NBA. I’m looking for an education and a national championship and that’s about it.” Young emerged as a prime recruiting target for the Wildcats in the spring and had listed Kentucky as the team to beat for his services since the summer. Young has made two consecutive visits to Lexington, once for Kentucky’s alumni weekend and the other this past weekend for “Big Blue Madness.”

Kentucky will now possess the most lethal perimeter trio in all of college basketball for the 2013-14 season with the addition of Young to complement the Harrison twins. In the left-handed Young, the Wildcats are getting one of the best pure scoring guards in the country. An aggressive scorer who can stroke it from deep or utilize his mid-range game, Young is exceptional at scoring off the catch and has a plethora of moves to get to the rim. On the defensive end, he uses his athleticism and length well to disrupt the opposition. The one aspect of his game that needs the most work is his ball-handling. In transition, he can fill lanes but with improved ball security, he could be even more deadlier running the fast break and making plays for either himself or his teammates.

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