NCAA Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Thursday

Posted by Walker Carey & Andrew Murawa on March 26th, 2015

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While the early round upsets and Cinderella stories are what make the NCAA Tournament unique to any other sporting event in the country, there is always something to be said about the best competing against the best. No more might that be true than this season’s Sweet 16, which feature arguably a legitimate “Top 16″ team pool … and it all gets started today. Here are four previews of Thursday’s games:

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wichita State – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Cleveland) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren't often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

Compared to the Pantheon of coaches, Gregg Marshall and Mike Brey aren’t often thrown in the discussion. But, both have their teams playing at the highest of levels at the moment. (AP & Getty)

The Irish and Shockers will meet Thursday night in what should be a very entertaining battle between two of the country’s best perimeter teams. Notre Dame and its four-guard lineup boasts one of the best scoring offenses in the country. USBWA first-team All-American Jerian Grant is one of the best offensive guards in the country. His scoring ability and ball distribution skills definitely makes him a player to watch each time he takes the court. For Notre Dame, sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia have each made a name for themselves this season. Jackson has greatly matured as Notre Dame’s floor leader on offense and his ball pressure on defense has been a greatly under appreciated facet of his game. Vasturia is the only Irish starter that does not have a scoring average in double figures, but his knack for hitting big shots coupled with some tenacious defense against some very good players (see his performance from last Saturday against Butler’s Kellen Dunham) has contributed to Notre Dame reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003. When you think of the great glue guys in the country, Irish swingman Pat Connaughton has to be one of the first players who comes to mind. The captain has been an essential asset all season from his three-point shooting to his defensive rebounding to his overall leadership, Connaughton has been the heart of the Irish attack.

Wichita State is equally as talented on the perimeter. Junior point guard Fred VanVleet has had as good of an NCAA Tournament as anyone thus far, as he thoroughly outplayed Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell in the round of 64 before having his way with Kansas guards’ Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham in the round of 32. The other two Shockers perimeter players — Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton — each bring a unique skill set that have lifted the team all season. Baker has a knack for leading the scoring effort and hitting big shots. Cotton is an elite defender and his athleticism results in him constantly being a slashing threat on the offensive end. This is going to be a very fun game and you have to figure that both team’s perimeter groups will get theirs. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2015

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Throughout Tuesday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), South (11:00 AM), Midwest (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCMWregion).

Midwest Region

Favorite: #1 Kentucky (34-0, 18-0 SEC). The unbeaten Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as not only the favorites in the Midwest Region but also for the entire tournament. John Calipari’s squad has been able to reach 34-0 due to its star power combined with its ability to play tremendously well as a unit. It will be utterly shocking if Kentucky is tripped up before reaching the Final Four. The reason why the Wildcats are such a lethal team is that they possess top-flight talent at each position. Their backcourt is loaded with sophomores Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. The insanely long and athletic front line is led by junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomores Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, and freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns. Toss in the fact that Kentucky’s veteran players have Final Four experience from a season ago and you will understand why the Wildcats are the overwhelming favorite to advance to Indianapolis.

Will John Calipari Be Smiling This Time Next Week? (AP)

John Calipari and the Wildcats have had a lot to smile about this season. (AP)

Should They Falter: #3 Notre Dame (29-5, 14-4 ACC). The ACC Tournament champion Fighting Irish enter the NCAA Tournament fresh off playing some of their best basketball of the year. Notre Dame possesses an elite offensive attack with multiple options that makes it a very tough team to defend. That attack is led by senior star guard Jerian Grant, an All-American senior who has the ability to take over a game each night out. Grant is the alpha dog star of Mike Brey’s team, but senior Pat Connaughton and sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia all strongly contribute to the Irish’s success. It will be a stunner if Kentucky loses at any point in this region, but if it does, look for Notre Dame to take home the Midwest Region trophy and advance to the Final Four.

Grossly Overseeded: #8 Cincinnati (22-10, 13-5 AAC). The Bearcats enjoyed a solid season but their résumé suggests that they should have been a double-digit seed. While Cincinnati had good victories over SMU (twice), San Diego State and NC State, it also had head-scratching losses to Nebraska, East Carolina and Tulane. The Bearcats finished the AAC season tied for third in the conference standings. Temple — the team they were tied with, and Tulsa, the team that finished one spot ahead of them — did not even earn bids to the NCAA Tournament. That’s not to suggest that Cincinnati didn’t deserve inclusion in the NCAA Tournament, but a #8 seed is very generous.

Grossly Underseeded: #7 Wichita State (28-4, 17-1 MVC). The Missouri Valley Conference does not provide many opportunities to pick up marquee victories, but Wichita State was able to pick up one on February 28 though when Gregg Marshall’s team got revenge from an early-season loss by topping Northern Iowa. The rest of the Shockers’ résumé was not very exciting, but they managed to win 28 games overall and only stumbled once in conference play prior to the MVC Tournament. Wichita State’s core is essentially the same (minus Cleanthony Early) as the one that started 34-0 last season. Gregg Marshall’s team is too talented and experienced to be a #7 seed and it would not be surprising at all to see it make a run to the second weekend.

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SEC M5: 12.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 10th, 2014

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  1. Speculation over whether all of Kentucky’s players are happy with their playing time will likely swirl all season, but last Friday’s win against Texas was one of the first times there was a potentially dicey situation. Willie Cauley-Stein’s huge game (21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals) meant he needed to be on the floor for 33 minutes, and 33 minutes for one player is not a platoon-friendly split. Marcus Lee was the victim of this minutes crunch and he apparently said all the right things during the game. “Willie told Coach [Calipari], ‘Keep Marcus in,'” assistant John Robic told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “That’s a sign of maturity. That’s a sign of a leader. That’s a sign of being a good teammate.” Lee was rewarded two nights later against Eastern Kentucky when Cauley-Stein was skipped in the rotation. The atmosphere in the Wildcats’ locker room will be something to monitor, or more appropriately, speculate about, all season. At least for now the waters seem calm.
  2. Another potential source of angst in Lexington is a relative lack of accolades, since it will be hard for anyone on the team to post the necessary numbers in limited minutes that’ll lead to national awards. You can see that manifested in this week’s CBSSports.com’s Wayman Tisdale Freshman Watch. Karl-Anthony Towns is the only Wildcat to make the list, and he’s outside the top five in the “next five up” category. This is certainly small beans, but it’s still noteworthy that a team with arguably the best group of freshmen in the game doesn’t have any posting gaudy enough numbers to crack the top five of such a list. That’s the nature of this year’s Kentucky team, and another thing that maestro John Calipari will need to manage.
  3. This M5 is Kentucky-centric, but I don’t feel guilty about it because that’s essentially how the league has showed out on the court this season. Regardless of how the minutes have been used, the Wildcats are defending their opponents at a potentially historic pace. To date, Kentucky has posted an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 82.6, and if this number holds it’ll be the best rating since KenPom began tracking the statistic in 2001-02. There is a lot of season left, of course, but some of Kentucky’s most difficult regular season games (e.g., Kansas, Texas) have already been played. The SEC as a whole has five other teams ranked in the top 50 of adjusted defensive efficiency (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU), and – somewhat surprisingly – this compares favorably to the Big Ten (seven teams), Big 12 (seven teams), ACC (five teams) and Pac-12 (five teams).
  4. Tennessee has been working in a lot of new players this year under a new coach, and it is doing so against one of the hardest schedules in the country. The Vols face Butler on Saturday in Knoxville, and that will be their third game against a top-15 team this season. “A lot of these [other] teams I don’t feel are being challenged during non-conference games,” guard Kevin Punter told the Nashville Tennessean. “But we are. Put us through the fire early. Why not?” The schedule might already be paying dividends for the Vols after their nice win last weekend against an up-and-down Kansas State team. A tough schedule for a team in total transition could have been deadly, so it’s good to see that Tennessee is showing some signs of life.
  5. Dorian Finney-Smith was in a three-game mini-slump going into Florida’s game against Yale on Monday, as the senior had shot just 8-of-27 from the floor against UAB, North Carolina and Kansas. This was understandable, of course, because Finney-Smith is playing with a broken non-shooting hand. He came of the slump against Yale, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and he isn’t making excuses. “I’m out there, so I have to play through it,” he told the Gainesville Sun. The Gators need to hope that Finney-Smith’s improved shooting performance is a sign that he’s learning to cope with the injury, because he’s incredibly vital to them overcoming their rough start.
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Freeze Frame: The Ceiling for Kentucky’s Elite Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 19th, 2014

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).

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.

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Is Kentucky’s Platoon System Built to Last?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 19th, 2014

John Calipari has been known to indulge in a bit of hyperbole from time to time, which forced most of us to take the preseason news of his installment of a hockey-style, 5-for-5 substitution system at Kentucky with a grain of salt. Super cool that you have a roster deep enough to float an idea like this, Coach Cal, but lets talk when actual games begin, okay? Impediments to wholesale substitution patterns go well beyond having a short roster. Foul trouble, injuries and varying match-ups are all reasons to maintain the classic flexibility of free substitutions. Even with a Kentucky roster overflowing with ability, this mindless platoon system Calipari was espousing seemed suboptimal at best and viciously exploitable at worst.

Waves Of Wildcats Wore Down Kansas On Tuesday Night

Waves Of Wildcats Wore Down Kansas On Tuesday Night (USA Today)

Or so the thinking went. After Kentucky walloped Kansas by 32 points in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic, it is suddenly evident that Calipari’s decision to eschew convention has the potential to pay massive dividends. At least for a night, there were no complaints about playing time. Rhythm remained steady as the units exchanged places, and both blue and white platoons played with the sort of boundless energy that Calipari dreamed this arrangement could foster. You could pull any five guys out of the Kentucky 10-deep and field a sufficiently scary basketball team, but the relentlessness of a long, athletic Wildcats front line was significantly magnified by the five-in, five-out waves that Kansas had to fight through all night. The Wildcats not only looked like the best team in the country on Tuesday night, but also a potentially unbeatable best team in the country.

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SEC Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 14th, 2014

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.

Kentucky Wildcats

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.

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.

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Looking Back at Kentucky’s Remarkable Run

Posted by David Changas on April 11th, 2014

On March 1, Kentucky‘s season hit its lowest point when the Wildcats lost to SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina, 72-67. Talk of a 40-0 season was a distant memory, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed likely. After that loss, Kentucky went on to lose twice to SEC champion Florida, but it was during the second of those losses – a one-point SEC Tournament Championship Game thriller that the Wildcats had a chance to win – that gave coach John Calipari’s team confidence that all was not lost. Kentucky received a #8 seed from the selection committee, and the path ahead of it would consist of games with the region’s top seed and the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record in 23 years, Wichita State, as well as a possible rematch with arch-nemesis Louisville. The regional final projected as a game against the team that lost to Louisville in last year’s national championship game, Michigan, or SEC rival Tennessee. The Wildcats were able to beat Kansas State with relative ease in the opening round, and then proceed to win thrillers against the Shockers, Cardinals, and Wolverines to advance to their third Final Four in Calipari’s five years at the helm of the program.

Kentucky Will Play For The Program's Ninth National Title On Monday Night

Kentucky Celebrated Its Way to the National Title Game

At the outset of the season, Kentucky was the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, and there was some serious talk in the Bluegrass State that the Wildcats could reach 40-0. That dream was dashed with an early-season loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, and then Kentucky followed that with pre-conference defeats to Baylor and North Carolina. If those losses didn’t cause significant concern, the Wildcats’ play in the lowly SEC did. They were swept by the Gators and by Arkansas, and narrowly avoided a sweep by LSU. By the time the SEC Tournament arrived, many wondered whether it was too late for the club to figure things out and salvage their season. After dominant wins over LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats appeared headed for another blowout loss in the title game to Florida. They trailed the Gators by 16 early in the second half, but eventually cut the lead to one point with the ball before James Young slipped and lost control, costing the Wildcats a chance to win. While Kentucky wasn’t able to complete the comeback, that game was the impetus for the turnaround. Willie Cauley-Stein called the performance “a big confidence-booster” afterward, and said that the Wildcats were a “new team” coming out of Atlanta. While winning the daunting Midwest region appeared to be a near-impossible task for a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 10 losses, the 78-76 second-round win over Wichita State in what many considered the best game of the Big Dance served notice that the Kentucky team many had expected had finally arrived.

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SEC M5: 04.04.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 4th, 2014

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  1. Arizona had no answer for Frank Kaminsky despite an athletic frontcourt and defensive wunderkind Aaron Gordon. Kentucky must now deal with the Badgers’ seven-footer without Willie Cauley-Stein in the lineup. Not only is Cauley-Stein the Wildcats’ best interior defender, his feet are quick enough to stay with Kaminsky when he fades out to the perimeter. “Oooh. … tough match-up for us,” John Calipari said on Thursday. “Really skilled. … He’s going to be a handful. Wish we had Willie.” Of all the great individual match-ups this weekend, how Kentucky handles the versatile Wisconsin center without Cauley-Stein available might be the most intriguing.
  2. Some of that responsibility with fall on Marcus Lee, Kentucky’s “forgotten All-American” who came out of nowhere to contribute in a big way against Michigan. As skilled and as big as Dakari Johnson is, it is Lee who has the quickness to better deal with Kaminsky. One scout told SI.com that he is the “X-factor” in Saturday night’s game against Wisconsin. Lee has a decent block rate (5.2%) in very limited time this year, and given his athletic reputation, it’s not likely that the 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks he posted against the Wolverines were a fluke. If Lee ends up playing a big role in one or more Kentucky wins this weekend it’ll be an incredible story for a guy who logged all of 39 minutes in SEC play. It would also be a great launching pad to a starting spot on next season’s team.
  3. If Kaminsky vs. the Kentucky frontcourt isn’t this weekend’s top match-up, then Scottie Wilbekin vs. Shabazz Napier must be. Napier dropped 20 points on Florida before the then-on-the-mend Wilbekin got injured in the first meeting between the teams. Prior to the SEC Player of the Year trying to lock down the NCAA Tournament’s hottest player, the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway took a look back at Wilbekin’s “unlikely road” to the Final Four. It’s almost unbelievable to think that just under a year ago Billy Donovan asked Wilbekin to transfer. “He needed to build his credibility back with the rest of our team,” Donovan said. Kasey Hill has shown that Florida would have still been dangerous had things turned out differently, but there’s no chance the Gators would be entering the final weekend as the favorites to win it all without their rock solid senior point guard.
  4. The players slotted in picks #43 to #45 in DraftExpress’ latest mock draft have something in common: They’re all SEC juniors who are leaving early. Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, and LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant are all expected to go pretty deep into the second round, which makes you wonder if staying another year would have been beneficial for each player. To be fair, telling someone to pass up the chance at bundles of money is foolish, and there very well could be family issues at play for any one of these players. But leaving early when you are not guaranteed to become a first round pick is a big risk, especially for players who stand to improve and enter a supposedly weaker 2015 draft. O’Bryant showed significant growth in the range of his jump shot this year and could keep that up if he stayed another season. Brown similarly looked more comfortable attacking the basket, and Clarkson would make himself infinitely more valuable as a big, athletic point guard with more refinement at the position. As of now, we’ll just have to wait until June and hope it works out for each player.
  5. Talk about a busy day. Missouri junior forward Zach Price, who sat out after transferring from Louisville last year, managed to get arrested not once but twice on Thursday. Right now it doesn’t appear that any of Price’s charges are felonies, so if he is convicted it won’t result in an automatic removal from the team. Still, Frank Haith may need to take extreme measures to get his team in line. The Tigers’ offseason has been about as disastrous as the end to their season. Price is now the third Tiger to be suspended after Shane Rector and Wes Clark were caught with marijuana before Missouri’s NIT opener. This isn’t the type of movement Haith needed in what will be a crucial 2014-15 season for him in Columbia.
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Final Four Previews In-Depth: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Walker Carey on April 1st, 2014

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As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Today: Kentucky.

Kentucky was ranked #1 in the preseason polls and that was with good reason. The Wildcats were bringing in one of the most highly-acclaimed recruiting classes in recent memory and were returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both of whom were also highly-regarded recruits before they arrived in Lexington the year before. Soon after the season began, it became clear that ultimate success was going to be quite the process for John Calipari’s young Wildcats. It would have been easy (and possibly logical) to count out Kentucky after a few confounding late regular season losses had one well-respected national pundit openly questioning the way in which Calipari was handling his squad. But things began to turn as Kentucky moved through play in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats easily dispatched LSU and Georgia before giving Florida everything it could handle in a one-point loss in the SEC championship game. What’s happened since the Wildcats began the NCAA Tournament? This in-depth Final Four preview, the first installment of our four-part series, should give you a pretty good idea. Kentucky is to be taken seriously as legitimate threat to cut down the nets next Monday evening, and this, in long form, is the explanation why.

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison Joined Wildcat Lore on Sunday (David E. Klutho/SI)

Pre-Tournament Capsule. Kentucky showed its youth in its non-conference slate, as the young Wildcats dropped their first three games when pitted against premier competition. In the Champions Classic in Chicago on November 12, Michigan State was able to fend off a late Kentucky run to earn a 78-74 victory. Playing at Cowboys Stadium on December 6, the Wildcats were handed a five-point loss at the hands of a talented Baylor squad. Eight days later, John Calipari’s squad dropped another game, this time in Chapel Hill against an enigmatic squad in North Carolina. Prior to the start of SEC play, Kentucky was able to grab at least one marquee victory when Louisville visited Rupp Arena on December 28 when it appeared like things were taking shape for the talented team. However, when SEC play commenced, the dominance that was expected from the team did not come to fruition. Playing second fiddle to Florida saw Kentucky finish SEC play with a 12-6 mark, and of those 12 victories, only an eight-point January victory over Tennessee was a win over an NCAA Tournament team. When the bracket was released on Selection Sunday, Kentucky was given an eight-seed, and due to its uninspiring résumé, arguments were generally dismissed about the Wildcats being underseeded.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 75, #2 Michigan 72

Posted by Walker Carey on March 30th, 2014

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 Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is RTC’s NCAA Midwest Regional Correspondent.
Three Key Takeaways.
  1. This was an unbelievable game. Just one week after Kentucky beat one-seed Wichita State in what, at the time, was considered to be the best game of the tournament, the Wildcats were once again locked in another epic. In a game that saw seven ties and three lead changes, both Kentucky and Michigan showcased some excellent basketball. The Wolverines exploded out of the gates and built a 10-point lead with 5:10 to play in the first half. The Wildcats then roared back to end the half on a 15-5 run to tie the game at the break. Soon after the second half began, it was Kentucky that stormed out the gates, but Michigan had an answer for every Wildcats run. Kentucky led by seven with 6:31 to play, but the resiliency of John Beilein‘s squad was on display, as it stayed the course and eventually tied the game at 72 with 27 seconds to play. From there, the game belonged to Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who hit a very difficult and contested three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats the 75-72 lead (which turned out to be the final score).
  2. Marcus Lee was a revelation. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and James Young are the Kentucky freshmen that everyone knew about and with good reason, as those five have played a ton of minutes and made a lot of plays that helped Kentucky have the opportunity to even play Sunday. One freshman, however, who had not received much attention this season was forward Marcus Lee. The McDonald’s All-American did not see too much playing time during his freshman season in Lexington. His last points before Sunday came on February 22 and he did not even play in the tournament wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined with an ankle injury, John Calipari turned to Lee to play big minutes Sunday and that paid off in a big way. Lee gave the Wildcats 10 big points off the bench, while collecting eight rebounds (seven offensive) and being part of an interior defensive attack that made things very difficult for Michigan inside all game. Considering how highly touted Lee was coming out of high school, his production in Sunday’s victory should not be all that surprising. It was just a matter of a talented player getting a chance to make an impact and Lee took full advantage of that chance.
  3. Aaron Harrison is Mr. Big Shot. Aaron Harrison was struggling. At halftime, the freshman had zero points, two fouls, and was having a hard time stopping Nik Stauskas on the defensive end of the court. Instead of losing confidence in himself and letting the poor play continue, Harrison rose to the occasion in the second half, by knocking down four of his five three-point attempts and hitting the game-winner with 2.6 seconds to play. While that shot got Kentucky to the Final Four, it was not the only important shot Harrison hit during the weekend. In Friday’s regional semifinal victory over Louisville, Harrison nailed a three with 39 seconds to play that gave Kentucky a lead it would not relinquish. Having a clutch performer is very important in the postseason and Aaron Harrison has shown that he is very capable of hitting the big shot.

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Freeze Frame: Analyzing Kentucky’s Porous Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 16th, 2013

Kentucky started out the season with delusions of a perfect 40-0 season, a fantasy even more preposterous as we look back now. The fact is that this young team is a work in progress with imperfections that need to be addressed and a resume that needs polishing. In its three losses this season, Kentucky’s defensive struggles were highlighted and exposed for the nation to see. Luckily for these Wildcats, John Calipari has been here before and he has a lot of time to work out his team’s inefficiencies on the defensive end.

Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite defender with or without his blonde hair. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky247sports).

Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite defender with or without his blonde hair. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky247sports).

To analyze the trends ailing this inexperienced squad and to quantify their individual performances on the defensive end of the floor, I have charted every defensive possession in all 11 Wildcats’ games thus far. The analysis below represents the good, the bad, and the ugly in Kentucky’s defensive score sheet this season.

The Good News 

Kentucky’s interior rim protection has been a bright spot, erasing a multitude of mistakes in the Wildcats’ perimeter defense. Both Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle have an impressive defensive rating, a metric calculated to represent the number of points allowed by an individual defender over 100 possessions. Cauley-Stein and Randle lead the team with 91.1 defensive ratings, with Cauley-Stein as a high usage defender involved in nearly 25 percent of the Wildcats’ defensive possessions.

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SEC M5: 11.20.13 Edition

Posted by Justin Bridgman on November 20th, 2013

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  1. For the first time in eight seasons, Alabama scored more than 100 points in a game. All it took was playing Division II Stillman to pull it off. Two things worth noting really stood out in the box score. First, the Crimson Tide attempted 31 free throws while Stillman took just nine. Clearly, Alabama was more aggressive offensively, and were able to take advantage of the new NCAA rules. Second, and perhaps more remarkable in the age of the three-pointer, but Alabama made just five threes for the game. They made 32 two-point field goals, yet another testament to their aggressive mentality on offense. That is the mentality Anthony Grant needs from his team when they play better opponents the rest of the season.
  2. Frank Martin is concerned that his team is suffering from a lack of leadership, and it is showing with the team’s bad start. Martin felt that a lack of preparation led directly to the Gamecock’s inability to run their offense against Clemson, in true coach’s fashion Martin hated the team’s defense too. With seven true freshman on the roster, this really shouldn’t come a surprise. While Martin can lean on sophomore Michael Carrera for leadership, that is a lot to ask of a player with just one year of NCAA experience under his belt. As the season goes on, South Carolina will work out their issues, and a leader will emerge. In the meantime, enjoy Frank Martin’s brilliant quotes throughout the article, which include complimenting his team’s defense by calling it “not pathetic”.
  3. When a team is as deep and talented as Kentucky is, someone suffers a loss of playing time. At the start of the season it looked like Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins would not be in the Wildcat rotation. Flash forward to five games into the season and the picture has already changed. Lee started his second straight game last night, scoring 10 points and three blocks. Hawkins only scored 3 points, but played 13 minutes in a blowout win. John Calipari likes the way Hawkins brings energy when he plays, something the Wildcats have struggled with at times this season. Lee adds a versatile defensive element that Calipari loves. Lee can lead a press and also protect the rim in half court situations. Exactly what the rest of the country wanted, for Kentucky to find even more depth.
  4. LSU has one of the most talented front courts in the country this season, and their rebounding numbers reflect that so far. Even without start freshman Jarell Martin, the Tigers averaged 53.5 rebounds in their first two games, and added 56 last night. Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey have been dominating the glass, and even 5-9 guard Andre Stringer has been contributing quite a few rebounds. This is an advantage that LSU should continue to exploit all season long. Not only will it keep them in contention against Kentucky and Florida, but it will cause major issues for teams like Missouri that don’t have much size inside.
  5. Speaking of Martin, his return is still up in the air right now. While there was speculation he might return last night, precaution won out and Martin sat out again. It’s hard to determine the impact of Martin’s injury since he has only played 33 seconds and the LSU big men haven’t missed a beat without him. Still Martin is a five-star recruit and expected to make a major impact whenever he does get back from his injury. The sooner he comes back and develop chemistry with his teammates the better. In the meantime, fellow freshman Jordan Mickey has been a revelation for LSU and added 16 points and 11 rebounds last night.
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