Kentucky vs. Louisville: What’s In Store?

Did you hear that Kentucky and Louisville are playing each other again Friday night? I was on a national radio show today, and I told the host that worker productivity will not only suffer on game day in this situation, but all week long here in the state of Kentucky.

Both teams are better than they were when they met in late December, a game Kentucky won by seven at Rupp Arena. But the keys remain the same—for the Cards, it’s scoring points off turnovers and making three-point shots. The more they have to face Kentucky’s length in a half court set and inside the three-point line, the better it is for Big Blue.

Kentucky must maximize its advantage in size on both ends of the floor and Willie Cauley-Stein is a huge key for Kentucky. When he’s defending the way he has in the postseason, blocking shots and creating insecurity for the opponent, it leads to a few more easy baskets than the Wildcats were getting for most of the season. Louisville is a good defensive team, so UK must also maximize its size advantage with second-chance points.

That was a big part of the formula for rallying to beat Wichita State. Kentucky doubled its points-in-the-paint total in the second half versus the first and the second-chance points tripled. Kentucky’s young players must avoid being seduced into trading three’s with the Cardinals because that is not UK’s game.

UofL did not defend Randle very well last time, putting the Cardinals in an early hole. Expect that to change, so it’s imperative that Randle continue to pass out of traps the way he did in notching six assists against Wichita State.

Kentucky is the first team to eliminate an unbeaten team from the NCAA Tournament twice. And when the ’75 Cats turned that trick against Indiana, their confidence soared. That was a senior-laden group, but I expect the same surge for these freshmen and sophomores and that should make UK a very tough team to beat in Indianapolis.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Cats Show Potential in SEC Tournament

Whether it was “the tweak,” a more physical brand of play, karma or some other mysterious “X” factor, the Kentucky basketball team looked like a 180-degree opposite of the one that we saw in the final two weeks of the regular season.  And the team that came up just one point short of upsetting top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament final is a team that can make some noise in March Madness.

Andrew Harrison’s play at point guard was markedly improved, as he set personal bests in assists against LSU and then against Georgia.  For the most part, he picked his spots well for taking shots and he did a marvelous job of quarterbacking his squad.  Great guard play has been a constant on John Calipari’s best teams so if that trend continues–plus his brother’s much-improved perimeter shooting–Kentucky is headed in the right direction.

Often this season, I have cited the 1992 Michigan team as good comparison for this Kentucky group, because the Wolverines started five freshmen that season.  There was no Big Ten Tourney in those days so Michigan finished its regular season with three straight wins but it had lost three of its previous five.  And heading into March Madness, that team had one less overall loss than these Wildcats and one more conference loss.  Michigan was seeded sixth that year but it gained some momentum in the early stages of the tournament, the talented rookies fed off that, and Michigan made it all the way to the title game.

I’m not predicting that for Kentucky because the Wildcats have yet to show the consistency to keep straight good performances together but three in a row last week was a good start.  Will the Cats make a surprising Final Four run?  Most would say “no” but CAN it happen–absolutely.

I think you’ll see Kentucky still playing when the NCAA Tourney field is cut to 16.

 

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

What’s in Store for the Wildcats?

The last time Atlanta’s Georgia Dome played host to the SEC Tournament, the 2011 Kentucky men’s basketball team produced one of its best three-game stretches of the season and parlayed it into a Final Four run.

Now, that UK team finished the regular season strong while this one has limped to the finish line. But every season, there are stories of teams who rediscover their best form at tournament time. That’s the kind of story these Wildcats hope to write, but how can they make it happen?

I think the key is Kentucky’s offense and at least the Wildcats showed some meaningful improvement in the second half of that game at Florida.

A veteran-laden team like the Gators exposes Kentucky’s defensive lapses better than most opponents. The best example of that came after the Cats cut a 21-point halftime lead to six with 12 minutes remaining. Scottie Wilbekin swished a dagger of a three-point shot when the Cats misplayed a pick-and-roll situation (a play that was a key element of the scouting report, but which UK defenders struggled to execute frequently).

Defense has never been this team’s strong suit at any point this season. However, until the last two-and-a-half weeks of the season, the Wildcats ranked in or just outside the nation’s top 10 in offensive efficiency. So I looked at arguably the best stretch of the season for UK, threes games during the holiday break in which the Cats handled two conference champions and then blew out an SEC foe.

Against Belmont, Louisville (the only ranked team UK has beaten), and Mississippi State, Kentucky averaged 84 points per game and averaged getting 47 points per game in the paint. In those three contests, UK shot 59 percent on attempts inside the three-point line, averaged only 10 turnovers per game, and outscored their opponents by an average of nine points a night on second-chance points.

One of the few positives out of the thumping at Florida on Saturday was the offensive performance in the second half. UK shot 54 percent from the field, including 58 percent on two-point shots. They had only three turnovers (with four assists), outscored Florida by five on second-chance points and 28-18 on points-in-the-paint. You’ll notice that those numbers match up quite well with that late December-early January stretch.

Until Julius Randle came alive late in the first half, Kentucky was slogging through yet another sub-30 percent first half of shooting. When you miss as many shots as the Cats have been missing, you look tentative, timid or whatever other word one wants to use.

Kentucky’s best hope for having some fun in March is to keep playing offense the way it did in the second half against the Gators, while hopefully coming to a better understanding of time-and-score situations, to know the difference between good shots and bad shots. At least twice after cutting that lead to six and putting some pressure on the Gators, UK players took a shot six seconds into a possession. And there were at least four scoreless possessions when a UK player drew a crowd of defenders, only to force a bad shot rather than finding teammates who were open and should have been visible.

Dakari Johnson’s low post scoring is something to build on, as is getting Randle an opportunity to work in space more often (taking and making a few jumpers would do wonders for him in that area). During that highly-productive stretch we referenced earlier, Alex Poythress averaged nine points per game and it would be nice to see him get back to dunking as many balls as possible (he has only one during this late-season offensive slide).

I’d also love to see Dominique Hawkins spend this week shooting as many jumpers in his free time as he can. His defensive skills could really help this team, but his absence of offensive confidence leads opponents to not guard him and offenses don’t work going four on five. The shots he passes up are shots he made in carrying Madison Central to a Sweet 16 title last March.

 

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Randle’s Evolution This Season

Julius Randle has been Kentucky’s best player from day one, but in Saturday’s 77-76 overtime win over LSU; we saw examples of Randle’s evolution from great talent to great player.

At Ole Miss, he dominated a game that Kentucky needed, on the heels of the loss to Florida. And when the Rebels’ late run got them within six, it was Randle who scored a contested basket in the paint to stem the tide. John Calipari said in our postgame interview that he considered calling timeout, but he saw a look in Randle’s eyes that told him the big fella would take care of business.

Coming off that big game and facing an LSU team that held him to a season-low six points, the Randle from earlier this season might have taken the matchup as a personal one, to send the Tigers a message about that performance in January. A more mature Randle instead opted not to force things in a matchup that wasn’t favorable for him to score big. He committed only one turnover, blocked two shots and was a beast on the boards, including the game-winning put back. And did you notice late in overtime how Randle demanded to be the one to guard Johnny O’Bryant? First, he forced O’Bryant into a turnover, and then after walling up O’Bryant in the low post—leading to an Aaron Harrison blocked shot—it was Randle who snatched the loose ball out of the traffic. Those are winning plays in a close game like that one.

Calipari has said Randle is a great passer, but not always a “willing” passer. Now, we’re seeing him starting to look for opportunities to give up the ball when congestion forms around him. There are times when it’s in UK’s best interest for Randle to look to score and other times when his focus needs to be more on things like rebounding, passing, and defending. And in the latter situations, there’s a good chance he’ll still find his way to 12 to 15 points per game. That kind of Julius Randle makes UK a much harder team to guard.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Huge Week for Kentucky Basketball’s Postseason Prospects

Neither LSU nor Missouri is ranked in the top 25, but this is still a huge week for the Kentucky basketball’s postseason prospects.

Win these two and there’s a very good chance that the Cats will take an eight-game winning streak into the February 15 nationally-televised matchup with Florida.  An eight-game win streak might well carry the Cats into the top 10 in the polls and also give UK a profile for Selection Sunday that will make it likely that the Cats could get a seeding of three or higher in the NCAA Tournament.

I thought Kentucky turned in its most complete performance of the season in beating Georgia on Saturday.  And from a stats perspective, the Cats had their best back-to-back performances of the season on the defensive end of the court.  However, both the Aggies and Bulldogs were without key players and both games were played in Rupp Arena.   This week, LSU and Missouri rank in the top half of the league in SEC games when it comes to their offensive efficiency.

Given that Kentucky has lost two of its three “true” road games, it will make a strong statement about this team’s improvement if it can get these two wins, against better-than-average opposition, in hostile environments.

But winning away from home is not only about defense.  In three of its four losses, Kentucky has made at least eight more turnovers than the opponent.  Giving away that many extra possessions is asking for trouble.

 

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Will the Cats Be Ready in Time for March Madness?

Two months from today, we’ll be analyzing our brackets for the NCAA Tournament.  So, when it comes to the Kentucky basketball team, it’s important to remember that this is only the halfway mark of their preparation for March Madness.

Just think of how many times opinions change about Kentucky Derby horses between the first Saturday in March and the first Saturday in May.

No team has ever won a national title with at least four freshmen in the starting lineup, but two of them did reach the title game.  At this point in 2007, Ohio State was 15-3 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten and 1-3 v. ranked opponents.  And Michigan’s 92 Fab Five group was 10-3, 2-2 and a 1-1 mark against ranked foes.  The Wildcats right now are 13-4, 3-1 and 1-3 against the ranked teams on their schedule.

In the win over Tennessee, the most noteworthy thing for me was the play of point guard Andrew Harrison.  It finally looks like he’s beginning to get a better handle on how his coach wants him to play, which is similar to being a Nascar drive,  in fact that the challenge is to go at top speed, but under control.  Harrison has played two of his last three games without a turnover.

It’s hard to see this Kentucky team getting to a Final Four without Harrison playing well. And, the performance we saw Saturday should give Big Blue Nation good reason for optimism that Harrison will get his game where it needs to be by March.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Positive Signs of the Cats’ Maturity

In its first two SEC games, a loss by Kentucky would have been more noteworthy than would a victory.  But tomorrow night at Arkansas, it’s one of the rare cases where it’s the other way around.

To me, for a team this young to lose this game would not be surprising.  It’ll be easily the most hostile environment the Wildcats have faced, especially given the 0-2 SEC start for Arkansas that put the Hogs in a must-win mode with respect to their NCAA Tourney hopes.  I understand that Big Blue fans are disappointed about any loss, but there would certainly be no reason to panic if these Cats fail to bring home this win, given that it’s only mid-January.

On the other hand, if UK does prevail, that would make a strong statement about this group’s development.  Kentucky had one of its best practices of the season on Friday; and, even though the final margin at Vandy was only nine points, lopsided road wins in conference play are hard to come by.  The Cats were up 13 with just three minutes remaining, so this win was decisive.

For UK to win convincingly without much production from Randle or Young was very encouraging.  Cauley-Stein is developing a low post game, Andrew Harrison had his first turnover-free game, Randle showed a newfound affinity for quick kick outs when trapped, and the bench production is growing.  All are very positive signs of this team’s maturity.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach