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 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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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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SEC Trick-or-Treat: Who’s Handing Out What

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2015

Every house hands out something different on Halloween. Elation or disappointment are just a ring of the doorbell away, and you never know which one is behind the door. It’s much the same in the SEC, where each coach enters the season with plans to cook up something unique. So saunter up to the door and get your bag ready, because SEC coaches are doling out the goodies.

King-sized anything – John Calipari. Don’t pretend like you got dropped off in the country club section of town without hopes of piling your plastic pumpkin full of king-sized Snickers bars. How can Kentucky fans be anything but satisfied with what Coach Cal has served up since landing in Lexington? One championship and four Final Four appearances in six years are enough to keep any fan base content. 2015-16 should be more of the same, with All-American caliber sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis joining forces with another loaded freshmen class. But one of the keys towards making sure this is another king-sized season is a pair of players that are more accustomed to playing “fun-sized” roles in Lexington. Senior Alex Poythress was limited to just eight games last year after tearing his ACL, while junior Marcus Lee has never averaged more than 10 minutes per game in a season. Elite recruit and potential top-five pick Skal Labissiere will be the headliner in the frontcourt, but both Poythress and Lee will be heavily relied upon to provide production alongside the star freshman.

Pixy Stix – Mike Anderson. When you want a sugar rush — and fast — you reach for the sweet simplicity of Pixy Stix. When you want to watch fast-paced basketball, you watch the Arkansas Razorbacks. Mike Anderson’s teams have ranked among the top 25 teams nationally in Kenpom adjusted tempo in all four of his years in Fayetteville. However, the Pixy Stix sugar rush is also accompanied by an inevitable crash — something Anderson will look to avoid this season. Four of his top five scorers are gone, and his rotation was further complicated by off-the-court problems over the summer. Even more trouble came when one of his top recruits, Ted Kapita, wasn’t able to qualify. It might all add up to a trying transition season in Fayetteville, as the Hogs may fall far short of the success of last season’s group, whose season ended in the third round of the Tournament. Still, if nothing else, freshman Jimmy Whitt should be able to light up the scoreboard — even if the points are as empty as the calories in that paper tube of sugar.

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Need A Rush? Grab Some Pixy Stix This Halloween…Or Watch Mike Anderson’s Team Play Basketball

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Three Takeaways From Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 22nd, 2015

Ed. Note: make sure to add @rushtheSEC to your Twitter follows for SEC basketball coverage over the next six months!

Billy Donovan is no longer roaming the sidelines for the Florida Gators. Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and a handful of other Kentucky underclassmen are gone to the riches and fame of the NBA. There are new coaches with Final Four and NBA Finals resumes now leading programs in Knoxville, Starkville and Tuscaloosa. The SEC certainly looks a little different heading into the upcoming college basketball season, but overall that might be for the best. Participants in the SEC Media Day event in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday oozed hope that the SEC’s early season stumbles and late collapses of years past would better prepare the league for ascent into college basketball’s elite this season. After many years of hype, will this finally be the year that SEC basketball takes a big leap forward into the national landscape?

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit - CoachCal.com)

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee with Sean Farnham at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit – CoachCal.com)

Here are three key takeaways from Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16:

1) The SEC is no longer Kentucky and everyone else.

Ben Howland has won at the highest levels of college basketball, taking three different schools to the NCAA Tournament. The new Mississippi State head coach has been successful in the Big Sky, Big East, and the Pac-12, but he spoke highly of the depth and quality of the teams in the SEC. “You have to bring it every night or you’re not going to win,” said the first-year Bulldogs coach.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Wisconsin 71, #1 Kentucky 64

Posted by Naveen Reddy on April 4th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

Down the stretch, Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin played like they were going to win. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Down the stretch, Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin played like they were going to win. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  1. 24 years later. It is hard to put games in a historical perspective in the moment, but this will rank up there with almost any of the great games in college basketball history. It is hard to believe, but we were in almost the same situation 24 years ago in the same city. Now this Kentucky team was not the defending champs (runner-up last year) and they were not the juggernaut that 1991 UNLV was, but we are here in Indianapolis with a #1 undefeated team losing to a team that it had beaten in the Final Four the year before. While most people were pointing towards Duke-Kentucky on Monday night as the place where Kentucky’s undefeated season might end, anybody who paid attention all season was aware of how big of a hurdle this would be. Much like the 1991 UNLV-Duke game this had some questionable calls, but this time the team on the wrong end of those calls ended up winning. It isn’t often that games like this live up to their hype (more on that later), but this one did and then some.
  2. Wisconsin showed its toughness tonight. Wisconsin played out of its mind tonight scoring 1.23 points per possession tonight against the best defense of the KenPom era in a performance that made us think that their second half performance against Arizona was not that much of an aberration, but it took more than that. When Josh Gasser found himself on the end of two bad calls–first a charbage call that negated a Bronson Koenig three with eight minutes left followed by a non-call after Trey Lyles slapped him in the face–we thought it might be a turning point where Kentucky would take control of the game. For a few minutes it appeared that they would as they took a 4-point lead before Sam Dekker made a couple of big plays–a lay-up followed by picking up a charge–that swung the momentum back in Wisconsin’s favor. When you have teams that are this evenly matched, you need to make big plays down the stretch. While Kentucky has found a way to win all season long, they misfired when it mattered down the stretch coming up with three straight airballs and shot clock violations. The result was history.
  3. What Kentucky did was incredible. It will be hard for Kentucky’s coaches, players, and fans to think about right now, but this was a great season for the Wildcats. What they did under the direction of Calipari was sacrifice their individual goals and glory for the greater good of their team. Their loss tonight is not a reflection of a failure on their part, but just the reality of the game and life–sometimes things don’t work out even when you plan things out perfectly. Kentucky was the best team in college basketball this season, but in one-game scenarios anything can happen. They were simply outplayed tonight. In all likelihood, we won’t see this group play together again since so many of them are projected to be first round picks, but we won’t forget them any time soon. You can argue about how “great” they actually were, but when they were firing on all cylinders they certainly were overwhelming. In the era of one-and-dones, this type of team (loaded with talent and with at least a little bit of experience) is probably the best we are going to get.

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