Tyler Ulis is Not Kentucky’s Prototypical Defensive Game-Changer

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

Kentucky fans are used to having defensive game-changers. These are usually athletic behemoths like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns — players who make entry into the paint a house of horrors for their opponents. But there’s another defensive game-changer on campus in Lexington this season, except that he’s over a foot shorter than his predecessors and does most of his defensive dirty work outside the lane. Tyler Ulis‘ control of the offense and Jamal Murray‘s scoring barrage have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention during the last week, but it has been Ulis’ keen ability to disrupt opponents’ offensive game plans that has been just as important. Just ask Florida head coach Mike White.

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

“I thought it started, again, with Ulis,” he said last weekend after a blowout loss in Rupp Arena. “There were three or four plays that we called that were quick-hitting or with some movement in the first half that Tyler just blew up with the pressure on the basketball.” Kentucky followed up that win with another lopsided victory over a Georgia team that might have been playing for its NCAA Tournament life. But in the end, the box score was littered with ugly numbers. The Wildcats held the Bulldogs to a measly 0.76 points per possession and an astonishingly low 25.0% eFG, poor marks even for a team that has struggled to score this season. Ulis was again the main culprit, using his exceptional quickness in a variety of ways to frustrate Georgia.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.05.16 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 5th, 2016

As we reach the halfway point of conference play, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches we should buy and sell. This is our latest stock watch.

Buy: Vanderbilt Making the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores’ resounding win over Texas A&M Thursday night was a huge step in the right direction, but Kevin Stallings‘ team is still on the outside of the bubble at this point. They finally looked like the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season, however, and we think they will use that performance as a springboard to securing a bid. They will be favored in their next five games, and should be able to build more confidence for a tough stretch run.

Sell: Kentucky Exiting the Big Dance Early. Sure, the Wildcats looked bad in blowing a 21-point lead to Tennessee on Tuesday, but they also took Kansas to overtime and arguably should have beaten the Jayhawks at Phog Allen. They will have to get more consistent production from the post, but with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray growing comfortable together in the backcourt, we’re not betting against a relatively deep run for John Calipari‘s team.

Kevin Stallings

Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt got a big win Thursday night. (AP)

Buy: Kevin Punter Earning First-Team All-SEC Honors. The senior guard plays for a team that almost certainly will finish the season in the bottom third of the league, which is ordinarily a tough position from which to earn first-team all-conference honors. But Punter has been fantastic on a team with little offensive balance. He currently is second in the league in scoring (23.1 PPG) and is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range. He’s shown remarkable improvement from his junior campaign, when he averaged just over ten points per contest. If he keeps up this level of play, Punter has a strong chance to make the all-SEC first team. Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.23.44 PM

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 VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 12th, 2016

The SEC began last week with the long-awaited Ben Simmons against Kentucky showcase and ended with the annual reappearance of John Calipari to the Nets rumors. Here’s what happened in between.

Team of the Week

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

Sign Andy Kennedy up for a few more weeks like that. The Rebels had loud, capacity crowds for their first two games in the Pavilion and the players on the floor didn’t disappoint. Ole Miss first overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to down Alabama, and then erased Georgia’s four-point lead with less than a minute to eke by the Bulldogs. As usual, Stefan Moody played a starring role in both wins, including a whirlwind game-winning layup against Georgia. The contributions of Sebastian Saiz shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he continued to be an active force in the paint with a pair of double-doubles. The Ole Miss program has some serious energy surrounding it right now.

Player of the Week

You could hand this to a number of guys — Moody, Saiz and (as always) Simmons come to mind. But this week’s honor goes to Anthlon Bell whose torrid three-point shooting and 51 points over two games led Arkansas to home wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Bell spent his first three seasons in Fayetteville as a solid but unspectacular option that Mike Anderson utilized in short bursts. With increased playing time during his senior season, he’s exploded in production. Bell leads the SEC in three-point percentage (47.1%) despite taking the third most three-point shots (104) in the conference.

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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 Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 30th, 2015

There were relatively slim pickings in terms of games over the holiday week, but there was still plenty of SEC action to digest. Let’s break down what went down in some of the final non-conference games of the season as we look ahead to the start of league play this weekend.

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky's win over Louisville (aseaofblue.com).

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team of the WeekKentucky stole the show on the lightest college basketball weekend of the year with its narrow win in the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Wildcats lost Isaiah Briscoe to a turned ankle in pregame warm-ups and got very little from Skal Labissiere (for the entire game) or Jamal Murray (for most of the game). Yet they were still able to beat a top-25 team without any freshmen playing a starring role. It took a superb effort from Tyler Ulis (21 points, 8 assists/1 turnover) and good games from Alex PoythressMarcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins. Who knew a Kentucky win led by a sophomore, two juniors and a senior was possible in the Calipari era? That the Wildcats have that kind of depth and experience is why despite ups and downs from the freshmen class, this team will not go the way the team did during Poythress’ freshman year.

Player of the Week. Ulis was the marquee player in the win over the Cardinals, and it wasn’t close. He’s becoming about as complete a player as a college point guard can be, and displayed it all against Louisville. He was masterful breaking the Cardinals’ press and controlled the game offensively, especially by delivering a number of passes to Poythress that put him in position to score near the basket. He also played a big role scoring the ball himself and seems to have shrugged off the elbow injury that had been clearly limiting him since the UCLA loss. The sophomore was an efficient 4-of-7 from distance and scored around the rim as well. Kentucky needed its star point guard to step up against Louisville, and he did just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Louisville’s Second Legitimate Test of the Season Awaits in Lexington

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 26th, 2015

The elephant in the room with respect to Louisville’s 11-1 start is the uncharacteristically weak competition it faced to compile its gaudy record. None of the Cardinals’ wins have come against a team rated higher than #131, according to KenPom, and that team was Grand Canyon. To their credit, Dan Majerle’s charges own a win over San Diego State, but nevertheless, the softness of this team’s schedule has left many wondering just how good this team is as it heads into its annual tussle with archrival Kentucky.

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Statistically speaking, the Cardinals have been terrific. Employing its typically stingy defense, Louisville ranks third overall in defensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive effective field goal percentage (40.4%). Sparked by graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the Cards have also outperformed expectations offensively, ranking 20th in efficiency (113.4 points per 100 possessions), led by Lee’s 13th-best national offensive rating (137.3). Shooting a blistering 57.5 percent from inside the arc, the Cards have also proven to be remarkably adept when they misfire, rebounding greater than 44.3 percent of their misses, good for second nationally.

Impressive as all that sounds, it isn’t unreasonable to scoff at the numbers when considering Louisville’s level of competition, ranked as the 332nd toughest schedule to this point. The Cards’ lone loss may have been the most instructive data point, in a good way, as the Cardinals led top-ranked Michigan State for the majority of their game in East Lansing only to fall victim to the expert playmaking of Denzel Valentine down the stretch. Perhaps the most positively illuminating development was the play of Lee, who was the best player on the floor for much of the night, proving to any doubters that his game would translate to the high-major level.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Dynamic Guard Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 18th, 2015

Prior to the Champions Classic game between Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he needed to learn more about his team. Knowing how critical Calipari can be about his team’s performances, he probably nitpicked a few of those less positive moments. He saw that his team could get outmuscled at times in the post, and he certainly wasn’t pleased with a lack of physical play near the basket during a long stretch of the first half. He watched as Marcus Lee (even though he otherwise had a standout performance) and Skal Labissiere, two of his starting big men, committed needless fouls on their way to fouling out with over five minutes remaining. But where his big men came up lacking, we also learned that Calipari’s backcourt is already one of the best in the nation, and it stepped up big time to solidify a 74-63 statement win over defending national champion Duke.

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season. (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis is only a sophomore, but the 5’9” point guard played like a seasoned veteran and proved he is the undisputed leader for this year’s young and talented Kentucky squad. The energetic floor general provided a spark on both ends of the floor on his way to 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and most importantly, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Freshman Jamal Murray dazzled on his way to 16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and four steals, while Isaiah Briscoe added 12 points, three boards, and two steals. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review the impact of Kentucky’s backcourt when Calipari needed them most.

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The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

The opening weekend is in the books and with the exception of Georgia’s surprising home loss to Chattanooga, the SEC emerged unscathed. Nothing is more fun than analyzing microscopic sample sizes, so this edition of Quotable and Notable is chock full of overreactions. Let’s jump right in.

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn's win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn’s win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

  • “And I’m not comparing him to them two, as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.” – John Calipari on comparing Skal Labissiere to Karl-Anthony Towns. And oh boy, could you ever see against NJIT on Saturday why the Haitian big man has drawn rave reviews on the recruiting circuit. Labissiere went off for 22 second half points and scored from seemingly everywhere on the floor. This came after a lackluster opening night effort against Albany, but the freshman’s offensive versatility and touch suggests that Calipari has a player on this year’s roster unlike any he has coached in the past. It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari uses Labissiere and whether his veteran big men, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, can be utilized to shore up any rebounding or defensive issues. Many people are going to harp tirelessly on whether Labissiere’s defense can catch up to his offense, but for now it might be best to sit back and appreciate what he can do. That said, Labissiere becoming an effective player on both ends of the floor would make Kentucky an even tougher team to beat in March.

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