Teams known for their defensive efficiency might not normally hang 110 points in conference play, but that’s exactly what Kentucky did when it met Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team on Saturday evening. Ken Pomeroy lists the Wildcats as the eighth most-efficient offense in the nation (118.4 points per 100 possessions), but that end of the floor has not consistently been the Wildcats’ calling card this season. John Calipari’s offense does, however, seem to be impvoing at just the right time. Kentucky’s 1.34 points per possession performance over the weekend was the third-best in SEC play for the Wildcats during the Calipari era (2010-15).
Most efficient games in SEC play during the John Calipari era.
The Wildcats were good at just about every aspect of their game against Auburn, but Kentucky dominated the low post, with its 62 points in the paint tied for the most of any SEC team this season. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will examine Kentucky’s post play to see how the bigs use screens on the low block to find and hold good post position.
Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection is a notable storyline in college basketball this season, but the quest for National Championship No. 9 carries a lot more significance to Wildcats fans. Continued development from big man Karl-Anthony Towns might ensure both. Towns’ improved toughness, better passing, and a flurry of developing post moves gives Kentucky better offensive production from the low blocks and further opens up the three-point shot when opposing defenses are forced to collapse on him.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ production in SEC play.
Towns has played his best basketball of the season in the last three games. His rebounding and shot-blocking have remained consistent, but he is scoring better than at any other stretch this year. Towns’ solid mid-range jumper gives head coach John Calipari the ability to use his big man at the top of the key, and his improved passing is evident in an accompanying increase in assists per game. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at the many different ways that Karl-Anthony Towns can hurt opposing teams, and why his sustained improvement on the offensive end of the floor could be key to the Wildcats cutting down the nets in April.
For the fourth consecutive week, Kentucky freshman Devin Booker was named the SEC Freshman of the Week. The 6’6″ guard averaged only 10 points per game in the team’s wins over Missouri and Alabama, and while those numbers somewhat paled in comparison with previous weeks, his run is nonetheless remarkable. He was not the most heralded of the Wildcats’ class of elite freshmen, but it would be difficult to argue that he hasn’t been the best of the group. Despite going only 1-of-6 from beyond the arc in Kentucky’s 69-58 win over Georgia Tuesday night, he is still shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range on the season.
Speaking of Kentucky’s win over Georgia, the Bulldogs kept things close in Rupp Arena despite playing without senior forward Marcus Thornton, their leading scorer and rebounder. It was the second straight game Thornton has missed, as he also did not play in the Bulldogs’ weekend loss at South Carolina. Coach Mark Fox hopes to get Thornton back soon, and the team clearly needs him in the lineup. Georgia is in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, and has a favorable stretch coming up that includes home games against Tennessee, Auburn, and South Carolina sandwiched around a trip to Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs are eventually going to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, they need to take care of business against the SEC’s bottom-feeders over the next two weeks.
Thornton wasn’t the only player to miss his second straight game in last night’s match-up between Georgia and Kentucky. Wildcats freshman Trey Lyleswas out once again due to an undisclosed illness. It is unclear exactly when he will return, and coach John Calipari is not giving any specifics about what is wrong with him. Kentucky is obviously a very deep team that can overcome these losses, but given that they are already playing without Alex Poythress — who tore his ACL earlier this season — small forward is the one position at which they are not overly deep. At this point, however, it is too early to assume that Lyles’ absence will be a major cause for concern for the Wildcats.
After missing the season’s first four games with an injury and struggling to find his way after that, Mississippi State‘s Craig Sword has regained his form, and the Bulldogs, which looked like a team that would struggle to win any games in SEC play, are now 4-5 after winning at Tennessee. Over his last five games, Sword has scored in double-figures, after doing so only once in his first 13. Against the Volunteers, Sword was a sizzling 7-of-8 from the field, including 4-of-5 from three-point range. The Bulldogs have now won four of their last six games, and are no longer the also-ran they were for the season’s first two months.
Texas A&M has won six straight SEC games and is in sole possession of second place, sitting at No. 31 in the RPI. The team’s turnaround began when the Aggies took Kentucky to double-overtime in their second conference game, and though they ended up losing, they have used it as a springboard to success. Other coaches in the league have taken notice too, and believe that the Aggies are in fact the real deal. They are led by transfers Jalen Jones and Danuel House, who was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 17.5 points per game in the team’s wins at Auburn and at home against Vanderbilt. Texas A&M faces a tough test at Mississippi on Wednesday, but after that, the schedule sets up favorably, and the possibility that the Aggies will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since joining the SEC is very real.
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).
“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 »
We are now nearly one-third of the way through SEC play, and it’s time to take our weekly look at which teams, players and trends are heading in the right direction, who isn’t going anywhere, and who needs to turn things around. This is the SEC Stock Watch.
Rick Ray. Last week, the Mississippi State coach looked to be well on his way to the unemployment line. A home win over Vanderbilt and a road win at Auburn — the Bulldogs’ first in their last 22 tries — have changed that momentum, however, and Ray’s program may finally have something cooking. Whether his squad can keep things heading in the right direction remains to be seen, as Mississippi State faces several of the league’s most capable teams over the next few weeks.
The emergence of Armani Moore is a big reason for Tennessee’s success (sportsanimal99.com)
Tennessee. Prior to the season, Donnie Tyndall’s squad was picked to finish 13th in the league by the media. The Tennessee coach guaranteed that would not happen, and so far, his prediction looks pretty good. The Volunteers have won their first three road games for the first time in six years, and play three of their next four contests at home. They sit alone in second place at 4-1 and could be 7-2 in league play before embarking upon a brutal second half of the SEC schedule.
Devin Booker’s shooting. The one real criticism leveled against Kentucky this season has been its relative inability to consistently knock down outside shots. Booker has silenced a lot of that yammering by shooting a robust 11-of-18 from beyond the arc in league play. The freshman’s keen ability to make long-range shots opens up the Wildcats’ dominant inside game, and makes John Calipari’s team even more lethal than it already was.
Georgia. The Bulldogs finally appear to be headed in the right direction, playing like a team many thought could make the NCAA Tournament. After an 0-2 start in which they blew large leads, Mark Fox’s team has now won three in a row and faces three more winnable games before a trip to Lexington on February 3. There is no good reason why Georgia can’t separate itself as the second-best team in the SEC in coming weeks.
One of the league’s hottest players since entering SEC play has to be Kentucky’s Devin Booker, who scored 13 points against Ole Miss, 18 points against Texas A&M and seven last night against Missouri. During the three-game run he was 8-of-11 from distance, and it is his outside shooting that makes Booker such a dangerous weapon for the Wildcats — perhaps the best long-range threat since Doron Lamb rained triples for the 2012 championship team. He won’t shoot at such a blistering rate all season long (currently 50.8%), but if he continues to produce it’ll be hard for John Calipari to keep him off the court in close games. Despite their exceptional defensive talent, the Wildcats don’t have all that many players who can create their own shot; therefore, the offensive threat that Booker poses will make it easier for guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson to find room inside to operate.
It appears Ole Miss did indeed take something away from its near-win at Rupp Arena last Tuesday. “If we can do that against Kentucky, we can do that against anybody else,” forward Sebastian Saiz told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The Rebels followed it up with a solid win over the weekend against South Carolina, and have two big opportunities ahead against LSU and Arkansas. If Ole Miss can win both games — no easy task considering that the Razorbacks game is in Fayetteville — the NCAA Tournament bubble could start to come into view. What could set the Rebels apart is that they can actually put the ball in the basket (24th in adjusted offensive efficiency) in a league where many teams struggle to score. Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody were both a bit inconsistent to begin the year, but when the two guards are both hitting shots at the same time, the Rebels can be a handful.
Florida’s ultimate potential is tied in large part to Kasey Hill’s development. The sophomore has struggled shooting the ball this year, making just 20 percent of his two point jump shots and 25 percent of his three point shots. Billy Donovan thinks that while Hill will likely never be a lights out shooter, there is room for growth. Hill is one of the quicker guards in the SEC, but his inability to keep defenses honest has likely had an effect on Florida’s ability to take advantage of Chris Walker’s athleticism at the rim. Walker has not shown he can create offense on his own and would be benefitted greatly from Hill breaking down the defense and creating seams. But the more defenses can sag off Hill, the less he’ll be able to create opportunities for others. Nonetheless, Hill is an ultra-talented player and a slight improvement would go a long way for Florida.
A rash of injuries has followed a tough opening week for Georgia, which could now be down three rotation players. The scariest situation happened to freshman Yante Maten (18.2 MPG), who suffered a concussion after being hit by a car outside of Stegeman Coliseum. Kenny Paul Geno (9.8 MPG) broke his wrist against Arkansas, and an Achilles injury could keep Juwan Parker (23.9 MPG) out of tonight’s game against Vanderbilt. Mark Fox has been essentially using a seven-man rotation with Parker and Maten getting the most minutes of all the reserves. Even if Parker can suit up, the Bulldogs may need Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic to play close to 40 minutes in a critical game. Fox has to hope Cameron Forte can provide some cover. The junior forward was pressed into 24 minutes of action against LSU after never seeing more than six minutes in a game prior to that, and held up well with 10 points and six rebounds.
Another reserve big man that saw his minutes explode in the LSU-Georgia game was Darcy Malone, who played 16 minutes after having only seen 20 minutes total before the game. This was the latest in Johnny Jones’ season-long quest to find depth, especially in the front court. The big man group of Malone, Brian Bridgewater, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps and John Odo has combined for just 6.3 rebounds per game. With that kind of production, or lack of production, you can’t blame Jones for rolling the dice. Luckily for the Tigers it appears that freshman guard Jalyn Patterson has emerged as a solid backcourt contributor. In fact, Jones trusts Patterson so much that he had him in over Josh Gray, who was having an erratic game taking care of the ball, late in the Tigers’ loss to Missouri last week.
Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday afternoon’s game between Kentucky and UCLA at the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
There has been plenty of talk so far this season about the potential of Kentucky completing an undefeated season. There has been good reason for this talk too, as the Wildcats have shown flashes of being an unstoppable force. This was never more evident than in Saturday afternoon’s 83-42 thrashing of UCLA. Kentucky started the game on a 24-0 run and led 41-7 at halftime. The Wildcats defense was so suffocating that the Bruins were held to 3-of-37 (8.1%) shooting in the first half and 19-of-71 (26.8%) shooting for the game. Probably the most incredible statistics of the first half were that Kentucky had more blocks (eight) and steals (five) than UCLA had made baskets (three). This was a thumping in every sense of the word. It was probably one of those games where UCLA coach Steve Alford would be better served to burn the footage than try to learn from it. The following are three takeaways from Saturday afternoon’s action.
Kentucky Experienced a Lot of This on Saturday Against UCLA (USA Today Images)
The first half could not have gone worse for UCLA. When Kentucky guard Devin Booker threw down a dunk at the 12:40 mark of the first half, all UCLA guards Bryce Alford and Norman Powell was stare at each other in amazement,as Booker’s dunk had put Kentucky ahead 24-0. Before swingman Kevon Looney finally converted a lay-in at the 12:17 mark, the Bruins missed their first 17 shots. When the half came to an end, UCLA’s futility was almost laughable. It was down 41-7. It had converted just 3-of-37 shot attempts, including 0-of-9 from behind the three-point line. It had turned the ball over eight times and let eight of its shots be swatted by Kentucky defenders. Adding insult to injury for the Bruins was the fact that it was not like Kentucky had set the world on fire offensively during the opening stanza either. The Wildcats shot just 45.7% from the field and missed several open looks from the perimeter. None of that mattered though, as Kentucky’s incredible defense, depth, and athleticism was the story once again in another lopsided victory. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by David Changas & Lathan Wells on December 13th, 2014
Two college basketball titans renew their rivalry in Lexington Saturday when North Carolina visits Kentucky. RTC’s Lathan Wells and David Changas offer their analysis of the match-up, and give their takes on what it will take for each team to prevail.
David Changas: North Carolina has been particularly ineffective in keeping its opponents off the offensive glass – the Tar Heels currently allow their opponents to grab more than a third of their misses – and Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding (46.1%). How can North Carolina combat the Wildcats’ prowess on the offensive boards?
Kennedy Meeks will have to be almost perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance (draftexpress.com)
Lathan Wells: Honestly, I think this an effort issue. The Tar Heels, like the Wildcats, have plenty of size in the post. The two teams who made them look porous on the defensive boards were Butler and Iowa, both of which are much smaller than the Tar Heels, but which played much more aggressively. Brice Johnson has to stay out of the foul trouble that has plagued him recently, because Kennedy Meeks is undersized at the center spot. As you noted, the Wildcats’ offensive rebounding numbers are astonishing. But part of that has to do with the fact that they are only an average shooting team (currently 81st in the country in field goal percentage). If the Tar Heels are better on the glass than in those losses to Butler and Iowa, who has to step up their shooting to make sure the Wildcats’ shots count?
DC: There is no question that this has to be an area of serious concern for John Calipari. The Wildcats are shooting 27% from three-point range, and last year’s NCAA Tournament hero, Aaron Harrison, is a dreadful 10-for-44 beyond the arc. Of course, Kentucky’s size and incredible ability to attack the offensive glass has covered up this weakness. While the obvious answer to your question is better production from Harrison, having Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, both of whom missed the Columbia game Wednesday, should help, as the two freshmen have been the Wildcats’ best shooters from beyond the arc. Like Kentucky, North Carolina has struggled from deep, and is shooting just 28% from three-point range. Kentucky is nearly impossible to score against on the interior, too. How can the Tar Heels score enough points to compete in Lexington, much less win the game?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seven Sweet Scoops is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you seven notes from the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul, dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date 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 email@example.com.
Tonight the top high school players in the country gather to participate in the 37th annual McDonald’s All-American game held at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Twenty-four of the top ranked high school seniors will provide the college basketball world with a glimpse of what can be expected from the next touted class of youngsters on ESPN at 9:30 PM ET. The high school class of 2014 might not have the star power similar to last year in a game that featured the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, but there are still several good storylines and match-ups to keep an eye on during tonight’s contest.
1. Chicago Natives At Home
There are three McDonald’s All-Americans from Chicago this year, including two of the top five players in the country. Five-star center Jahlil Okafor and five-star power forward Cliff Alexander will suit up for the East and West squads, respectively. The two played together on the AAU circuit this past summer and faced off in high school action several times over the last three years. Okafor is considered the No. 1 player in the country and is headed to Duke next year, while Alexander is ranked No. 5 and has committed to Kansas. Alexander put together a monster senior campaign, but it was Okafor who won the Illinois state title. Okafor and Alexander excel with different styles although they are both low post scorers. The 6’11” Okafor has the more refined post game and is almost impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation while Alexander is a DeAndre Jordan clone who looks to dunk and block everything in sight. While these two might not match up in tonight’s game, you can be certain that they will both have the hometown crowd on their feet. To go along with the Windy City twin towers, there is also diminutive 5’9” point guard Tyler Ulis (#29). The four-star prospect is headed to Kentucky and will be the quickest player on the court. The floor general is great at beating his man off the dribble and creating easy shots for his teammates. Ulis will suit up on the East squad along with Okafor, while Alexander will play for the West.
It doesn't matter who comes back for Kentucky, I don't know how they could keep Tyler Ulis off the floor. He's a leader w/ terrific vision.
There is only one prospect in the game that remains uncommitted and he is 7’0” center Myles Turner, who is also the No. 2 ranked recruit in the country. This time last year the Texas native wasn’t even considered a top 100 player, but after a meteoric rise last summer he is now the hottest commodity in high school. Turner just recently took an official visit to Texas after previously visiting Ohio State, Duke, Oklahoma State and Kansas. He has also taken unofficial visits to SMU and Texas A&M, and is also reportedly considering Arizona and Kentucky. It’s been a whirlwind journey for Turner, who plans to sit down with his advisers and family after the Jordan Brand Classic to discuss his choice of suitors.
Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, 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 recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions atThe Intentional Fouldedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2014 recruiting class marked the first time that John Calipari did not come away with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country during his tenure at Kentucky. While he still ended up with the No. 2 class, Kentucky has their sights squarely set on landing the No. 1 class in 2015. They got their first commitment this past week when five-star shooting guard Charles Matthews announced his intentions to play for the Wildcats. The 6’5 guard is currently the No. 15 player and No. 4 shooting guard in the junior class and is the next Chicago native to make the journey down to Lexington.
The 6’5” guard missed the first month of his junior season at St. Rita’s (IL) High due to an ankle injury, but is now back to full strength. Matthews proved his status as a five-star player over the summer on the Nike AAU circuit. Playing against older competition Matthews always had a large contingent of colleges watching him including Duke, Illinois, Kansas, and Michigan State. He averaged almost 13 points a game while playing for the Meanstreets AAU program and scored from all areas of the court but was especially effective from mid-range. With long arms and good height for his position, Matthews can also elevate with the best of them making his jump shot unblockable. While he proved his elite status on the summer circuit, he also developed a strong chemistry with his squad’s point guard. That point guard just happens to be four-star point guard Tyler Ulis (#29 overall, No. 6 PG) who committed to the Wildcats in the fall.