RTC Final Four Snapshots: Kentucky WildcatsPosted by zhayes9 on March 31st, 2011
Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Here are Butler, Connecticut and VCU. We conclude the series with the third school that John Calipari has taken to the Final Four: Kentucky.
Crucial Tourney Moments: Without Brandon Knight’s late-second driving layup against Princeton, his only field goal of the entire game, the Wildcats may not be standing here today as the favorites to win the program’s eighth national championship. Survive and advance has been the mantra for the Wildcats throughout their difficult road to the Final Four. UK needed another Knight game-winner, this time a step-back jumper from the right wing on Ohio State’s ace defender Aaron Craft, to knock off the overall #1 seed in the Sweet 16. A kickout three to Billy Gillispie holdover DeAndre Liggins made the difference in UK’s second upset win on Sunday. No one can argue the Wildcats didn’t earn a spot in Houston after downing teams the caliber of West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina in successive fashion. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Knight’s shot had rimmed out and Princeton battled Kentucky into an extra session.
Advantage Area: Kentucky boasts the most scoring options of any Final Four participant, a direct compliment of both John Calipari’s ability to reload on the recruiting trail and develop three and four year program players like Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Knight is the best pure scoring point guard Calipari has ever had at his disposal. The star freshman is outstanding in handoff ball screen situations with Harrellson where defenders have to opt to either go under the screen and test Knight’s advanced jump shot or fight through where they’ll likely need help on his dribble penetration. Kentucky fell short of expectations last year in the NCAA Tournament largely due to a lack of outside shooting. This season, with the likes of Miller, Liggins and the ultra-efficient Doron Lamb, Calipari can spread the floor and that aforementioned help defense on Knight’s penetration opens up ample room for capable shooters. Kentucky can spread the floor, move the basketball, force help and knock down perimeter jump shots, the primary reasons for their tremendous offensive execution against North Carolina in the regional final.
Potential Downfall: The possibility of foul trouble for Josh Harrellson is a major concern. We knew Knight and Terrence Jones had some serious talent, but with Enes Kanter ruled ineligible the main concern with Kentucky since the offseason was always their frontline. Harrellson has already proven he can hold his own against two of the best big men in the country in Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller, so Alex Oriakhi isn’t a tremendous concern. But what if Harrellson picks up two early fouls and Eloy Vargas has to play 13 minutes in the first half? Kentucky has been fortunate through their run that Harrellson has stayed on the floor for 33+ minutes in every game other than the SEC Tournament final rout over Florida. While Jim Calhoun has four legitimate big bodies he can play if you count Niels Giffey, Calipari has Harrellson and Vargas. Let’s just hope the former can stay on the floor.
X-Factor: Big Blue Nation has long pleaded with Darius Miller to be more aggressive, demand the basketball and take more shots. There’s a reason: the kid is very efficient and very talented. A 6’7 junior from Maysville, KY, Miller has posted numbers that suggests he’s a capable offensive weapon: 11.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 49% FG, 86% FT and 45% 3pt. At times this year, Miller has been a barometer for the success of the team. Before the Wildcats biggest regular season win against Florida, Calipari pleaded with Miller to take over the game and he responded with 24 points on 9-15 FG. He also scored in single digits in four of Kentucky’s six SEC road losses. If Miller scores in double figures on Saturday, odds are that Kentucky will emerge victorious.
Key Semifinal Matchup: Throughout the tournament, Calipari has placed his best defender, the long-armed DeAndre Liggins, on the opposing teams’ point guard to disrupt offensive flow. Expect him to glue Liggins to Kemba Walker throughout Saturday’s game regardless of whether Walker plays the point or moves over to shooting guard when Shabazz Napier takes over at the 1. Liggins has the length, quickness, athleticism and competitive nature to create major problems for Walker, whether it’s contesting his patented stepback jumper or chasing him off screens before any open look at the basket is permitted. Liggins will provide more of a challenge than either Chase Tapley or Kyle Fogg did last weekend. If Kemba is struggling, Connecticut could go down in flames.
Crunch Time Performer: If this NCAA Tournament has proven anything, it’s that Brandon Knight excels with the ball in his hands late in games. Calipari has all the trust in the world in his rookie point guard. There was no doubt who would take the final shot against Princeton even though Knight was suffering through the worst scoring game of his brief collegiate career. The prospect of Knight and Walker exchanging baskets late in a national semifinal gives me chills.
Experience Level: Kentucky employs three freshmen in their seven man rotation. Their lone senior in that rotation, Harrellson, had zero NCAA Tournament experience prior to this season and their two juniors, Miller and Liggins, have never made it further than the Elite 8. This puts Kentucky in common with pretty much every other team in this year’s Final Four other than the core of Butler. I think there’s been ample proof this March that previous tournament experience isn’t much of an indicator towards actual success in the win column.
Forecast: Kentucky has all the ingredients to win two games in Houston and their fans should expect to be holding a parade in Lexington next week. Knight is the point guard with quickness but also consistent shooting range that Calipari lacked in Rose, Evans and Wall. There’s a nice balance of ultra-talented freshmen and savvy veterans that embrace their roles. The real key is Terrence Jones and whether he can resemble the All-American candidate he was earlier in the season. If Jones and Miller are aggressive for 80 minutes, John Calipari wins his first national championship. I predict that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Which means only one thing: congratulations VCU!