Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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What SEC Teams Seek This Weekend

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 18th, 2015

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The Southeastern Conference has been hit hard in the national media and on social media and everywhere else for its less than stellar basketball reputation. To be fair, it’s not completely unwarranted. Ole Miss opened the season with a loss to Charleston Southern. Mississippi State lost to Arkansas State and McNeese State. Missouri boasts a loss to UMKC. Those are bad losses to be sure, but the SEC is definitely not a one-team league, and the NCAA Tournament is a very good time to prove it.

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But, the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Five SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament this season, including undefeated Kentucky, which is a step in the right direction. You have to wonder, though, how much the Wildcats running through the conference without a loss has tarnished the perception of the rest of the league. Close followers of the SEC recognize its depth of talent from top to bottom this year but college basketball success is often defined by how the conference performs in March. Whether you subscribe to that opinion or think it’s bunk, it is important for the SEC to prove its worth on the national stage this weekend. Below we will examine what each team stands to gain during the NCAA Tournament in addition to bolstering the overall perception of the conference.

  • Kentucky: ESPN has made you acutely aware that Kentucky is chasing history, but even though the Wildcats are on the pursuit of perfection, there are still plenty of doubters. Everybody knows haters are gonna hate, but there is really only one way to silence those detractors, and that’s to win. For Kentucky, anything short of a National Championship will bring out a chorus of “I told you sos” from the numerous Twitter trolls who have persistently claimed that Kentucky has benefited from a weak SEC slate. John Calipari‘s club is on a mission to achieve something much more substantial than providing trash talk ammunition for the Big Blue Nation to take on Louisville fans. The 2012 version of the Wildcats may very well have been a better team than this season’s crew, but the Anthony Davis Wildcats can’t claim a 40-0 record. With six more wins the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats will forever be remembered as one of the great teams in college basketball history. Lose, however, and this team might be categorized in the same breath as the 2009-10 John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins Wildcats; a talented team that fell short when it counted the most.

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Why Each SEC Team Will Win in the Round of 64

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 17th, 2015

You printed out your bracket and you were sly enough to carry it in your portfolio into the Monday morning staff meeting. All you need now is for the office suck-up to bring in kolaches (ask the College Station folks if you’ve never had one!), a working pen (you really forgot to bring a pen to the staff meeting?), and a reason to advance every SEC team into the Round of 32 and beyond.

How about a good luck kiss for your bracket? (photo via @ukphotogs)

How about a good luck kiss for your bracket? (photo via @ukphotogs)

The SEC put five teams into the Big Dance but the casual college basketball fan who started paying attention in March doesn’t realize that the conference actually packs a bit more of a punch this season. At the same time, do you really trust teams that are coming off a loss to Auburn to advance deep into the tournament? Before you decide to be the SEC homer that has Georgia vs. LSU in the Elite Eight, lets focus first on how each SEC team can get to the Round of 32.

Kentucky. If you need to be convinced that Kentucky can win its first game then consider saving the $5 you were going to put into the office pool and buy five of those chocolate bars that Lois from accounting is selling for her grandson’s school fundraiser. For the sake of a good argument, lets assume Manhattan beats Hampton tonight. Former Kentucky player Steve Masiello would love an opportunity to end the Wildcats’ pursuit of perfection on his mentor Rick Pitino’s home court. Masiello has something that none of the current Wildcats yet have, a degree from the University of Kentucky. So there’s that. Is there any valid reason to think the Jaspers could pull off a victory though? Well, to get to this point, Manhattan will have beaten Iona. Iona beat Wake Forest. Wake beat North Carolina State. NC State beat Duke. But Duke didn’t beat Kentucky. Nobody has. And there’s not much reason to think that Manhattan will either. Moving on.

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Freeze Frame: Analyzing Kentucky’s Post Game

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 24th, 2015

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.

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.

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Freeze Frame: Texas A&M’s Inbounds Plays

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 17th, 2015

A glance at the box score from Texas A&M’s one-point victory over Florida on Saturday night reveals that it was Aggies forward Kourtney Roberson as the player with the most impressive stat line. The big guy certainly put in an impressive showing, finishing with 20 points and six rebounds in leading his team to the key win, but the game’s MVP did not even play a minute. Rather, the clear star of the evening was Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy, who used his whiteboard to draw up a series of highly successful out-of-bounds plays that allowed his team to secure the victory. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will examine several inbounds plays to understand how Texas A&M got its open looks. Kennedy’s play-calling resulted in a number of valuable easy buckets against the Gators, especially in the game’s final five minutes. For a team that needs every win it can get heading toward Selection Sunday, those instructions gave the Aggies just enough offense to get past Florida and move to 8-4 in conference play.

Billy Kennedy has his Aggies 17-7 (8-4) and poised to make an NCAA Tournament bid  (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner).

Billy Kennedy has his Aggies 17-7 (8-4 SEC) and poised to make the NCAA Tournament (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner).

The play shown below from the first half gives us a gauge for how Kennedy has his players lining up on out-of-bounds plays from the baseline. Alex Caruso typically inbounds the ball whenever he is in the game, as the rest of the Aggies line up in a 2-1-1 formation. In this play, Danuel House (#23) moves to set a screen for Roberson at the foul line (#14).

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Freeze Frame: The Improvement of Karl-Anthony Towns

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 10th, 2015

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.

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.

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Freeze Frame: How South Carolina Broke Georgia’s Zone

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 3rd, 2015

The Gamecocks entered Saturday having dropped six of their last seven games, including the last four. Georgia came in on the opposite end of the spectrum, riding into Columbia on a five-game winning streak and feeling good about its NCAA Tournament chances. So it stands to reason that South Carolina’s defense (11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency) completely shut down the surging Bulldogs, holding Georgia to 22 percent shooting for the game. After an early 13-9 deficit, Georgia turned to a 2/3 zone with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. Frank Martin’s squad lacks a legitimate outside shooting threat, but he used screens and quick ball movement around the zone to propel his offense to its most efficient output (1.04 points per possession) since January 13 (a win over Alabama). In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review how South Carolina was able to break down the Bulldogs’ zone and notch an important conference win.

Frank Martin picked up a big win over Georgia with an efficient zone offense.  (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up a big win over Georgia with an efficient zone offense. (rantsports.com).

The first play we will examine came with 9:42 left in the first half. Georgia had recently switched to the 2/3 zone and the Gamecocks used screens on the perimeter to free up their shooters off the dribble. In this play, South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell works the ball into the middle of the zone where Michael Carrera has set up shop.

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Three Takeaways from Kentucky vs. South Carolina

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 25th, 2015

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).

Frank Martin was proud of his team’s effort on Saturday against the number one team in the country (Bruce Thorson/US Presswire).

  1. “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 »
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Freeze Frame: Florida’s Pick-and-Roll Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 20th, 2015

This edition of Freeze Frame could have easily gone several different ways. We could have looked at Florida’s season-high 19 turnovers against Georgia on Saturday; dissected Michael Frazier’s inability to create his own shot off the dribble; analyzed Billy Donovan’s lack of a go-to guy; or even criticized his Gators’ struggles to get to the free throw line. Those takeaways, while all relevant, did not represent Florida’s most glaring issue in the 12-point loss. Florida senior Jacob Kurtz said it best afterward: “Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t very good.” We went back and analyzed the Gators’ defense on Georgia’s screens, and Kurtz was right. It’s just that simple.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Georgia found a number of ways to exploit that defense, shooting 8-of-15 from beyond the arc, getting to the free throw line 29 times, and making Florida’s defenders appear completely lost for most of the game. But as you will see below, their best strategy was the complete variety in their screens. This Freeze Frame will slow down Mark Fox’s offense to determine exactly what they did to confuse the Gators.

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Freeze Frame: Arkansas’ Half-Court Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 13th, 2015

As Florida still works out its offensive kinks, Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks are quietly becoming a legitimate SEC contender. The Hogs are riding a seven-game winning streak that includes wins in the first two conference games for the first time in the Anderson era. We have already examined Arkansas’ up-tempo style this year, but it is now the defense that is giving the Razorbacks an edge in conference play.

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals as well.  (thesportsseer.com).

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals too. (thesportsseer.com).

It is typically Arkansas’ full-court pressure that creates havoc for its opponents, but it was the Razorbacks’ half-court defense that gave Vanderbilt fits as Arkansas created 31 points off of 22 Vandy turnovers on its way to an 82-70 win. Arkansas has forced SEC opponents into a 30 percent or greater turnover percentage seven times since Anderson’s arrival (see table below), so it will be very difficult to beat the Razorbacks when the opponent turns the ball over on almost a third of its possessions. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will review how the Hogs made scoring so difficult for the Commodores and how that performance fits historically in the Anderson era.

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Freeze Frame: Alabama’s Shift to Man to Man Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 18th, 2014

Alabama nearly came up with a huge victory for itself and the SEC when it lost by one at Wichita State on Tuesday night. Anthony Grant’s team felt secure with an 11-point lead and 5:50 remaining, but the Tide’s Achilles Heel — fundamental defense — came back to haunt them once again. Grant’s defense has struggled all season, and after nearly 35 minutes of solid pressure on the road (forcing the Shockers into 40.8 percent shooting), it failed them once again.

Alabama's defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

Alabama’s defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will look at the final 15 minutes of Alabama’s defense against the Shockers. The Tide to that point had found a lot of success with a 2-3 match-up zone that frustrated Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and their Wichita State teammates into a bunch of contested outside shots. But with the momentum clearly in the hands of Alabama, Grant made a huge mistake in shifting back to his man-to-man defense. Van Vleet was then able to penetrate the lane to find open teammates, rendering the pick-and-roll option more effective, and ultimately erasing a late double-figure lead.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Alley-Oop Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 12th, 2014

Up until Wednesday night against Ivy League opponent Columbia, only Texas and Buffalo had stayed within 20 points of the No. 1 team in the country. While the Wildcats still beat the Lions by double figures, they looked somewhat beatable for much of the game as Columbia slowed things down to 51 possessions. Columbia maintained good spacing on the offensive end of the court, forced Kentucky to shoot primarily from the outside (17 of 60 shots), and cut off the Wildcats’ go-to offensive move, the alley-oop.

Kentucky's dunk totals on the year (through December 11 and the Columbia game).

Kentucky’s top dunk totals on the year (through December 10’s Columbia game).

Kentucky typically uses its athleticism and length to get easy looks at the basket. Against Eastern Kentucky last Sunday, the Wildcats ended up with 14 dunks and 10 lob plays in a rout at Rupp Arena. Just three days later, a well scouted game plan helped Columbia limit the Cats to just two alley-oops, both of which came in transition. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at how Kentucky gets so many easy lobs at the rim and how Columbia cut off that option without the same size and athleticism of all the future NBA players who reside in Lexington.

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