The experts say the NCAA Tournament is about “matchups”—does the opponent do something well that is a weakness for your team. When it comes to UK and West Virginia, it looks like a bad matchup for the Mountaineers, but it’s up to the Wildcats to go out tonight and make it true.

West Virginia’s all about the full-court press and scoring points off the turnovers it forces. But this Kentucky team is in the top 10 percent of the teams in the nation in terms of fewest turnovers per game. And only two teams all season have outscored UK in points-off-turnovers, as Kentucky averages 18 points-per-game off turnovers by the opponent—only two-points-per-game less than WVU.

If you handle the press and minimize the damage done by turnovers, then West Virginia’s defensive numbers look only average. Since good teams usually have good guards, that is why WVU is only 2-7 against teams seeded three-or-higher in this tournament.

One thing is certain—Bob Huggins’ team is not going to be intimidated, so the Wildcats will have to take what they think belongs to them. The Mountaineers did some trash-talking yesterday, and this Kentucky team has taken it personally when opponents have “woofed” at them this season. Is West Virginia different? We’ll see.

 

-Tom Leach

The Phrase “Good Loss” Is No Longer In The Lexicon of Big Blue Nation

34-0 and six to go. The phrase “good loss” is no longer in the lexicon of Big Blue Nation. If you thought the Wildcats needed to lose a game to relieve pressure, that debate is now moot. And I was never in that camp, because this team shows no sign of feeling a burden with being unbeaten, so why not try to make history.

I was reading an article this week about the ’76 Indiana team and players like Quinn Bucker and Tom Abernathy on that team said it wasn’t a perfect season, but the championship they were denied the year before is what drove them to accomplish what they did. Ironically, it was Kentucky’s upset of an undefeated Hooiser team in 1975 that provided that fuel for their fire. And players on UK’s title teams in ’96 and ’78 will tell you that losing in regional finals the year before is what motivated them most of all.

At the SEC Tournament, Willie Cauley-Stein talked about a meeting among players at the hotel the night the Wildcats lost in the NCAA title game to UConn and how they discussed coming back to finish the job. And as the Wildcats prepare for what they will hope will be a six-game championship run, it was players from that game—WCS and the Harrison twins—who played the best overall basketball last week in Nashville. It’s “game on” for them, and as the school song, they are “right for the fight today.”

I don’t see any serious challengers for Kentucky in its Midwest Region bracket. My contest sheet has the Wildcats dispatching Manhattan, Purdue, Maryland and Notre Dame to reach the Final Four in Indy. Once there, make it UK over Arizona in the semifinal and Duke in the final, to make it 40-0 for a ninth national championship banner.

This Kentucky squad is a great example of “team” basketball, but for what the Wildcats have accomplished, I was hoping a guy like Willie Cauley-Stein would get some individual recognition in the postseason awards, and it’s good to see that happening.

WCS has been a first-team All-America pick on every team I’ve seen thus far, and he may end up being the fourth consensus AA selection in the Calipari era despite not averaging in double figures in points or rebounds.  Cauley-Stein doesn’t even lead in blocked shots for this team because the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns has enabled Calipari to use the 7-foot-tall Cauley-Stein more frequently to lock down perimeter players.

Kentucky has accomplished what it has primarily as a result of its suffocating defense and Cauley-Stein is the player who keys that part of UK’s game.  Just look at the matchup with Arkansas, when an early block by Cauley-Stein set the tone for the Wildcats’ dominance–and he did it by going from the top of the key to pinning a shot on the backboard in the time it took a pass to travel from one Arkansas player to another under the hoop.

That’s the thing with Cauley-Stein–you have to watch him play and not pay attention to numbers  in order to appreciate his impact on Kentucky’s success, and it’s good to see that voters are recognizing this.

With that said, the most important player for Kentucky to achieve its goal of winning a ninth national title may be Towns.  The longer a season goes and the more tape opposing coaches have, the more they find ways to attack your strength.  Kentucky will invariably encounter a team or two on its tournament run that deal with UK’s defense well enough to shoot a percentage higher and to have a chance to win.

Those are the games that UK needs to be able to win with its offense and it seems that Kentucky is increasingly at its best when that offense flows through Towns in the low post.  Florida threw him an early curve by trapping him in a fashion that denied his go-to move of a right-handed hook shot but that will prove to be a valuable learning experience.  Towns’ passing skills are emerging and his ability to be a go-to scorer and also find open teammates when the defense collapes makes UK’s offense more potent.

As soon as Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison start knocking down threes at a higher rate, and I expect that to happen soon, Kentucky’s inside-outside combo will be lethal.

-Tom Leach

Preach on, Jay Bilas.

On last Saturday’s “College Gameday” show on ESPN, Bilas talked about how Kentucky is doing things the right way, in everything from sharing the basketball and playing hard to avoiding off-court missteps. And he said such a program would be lavished with praise if it was happening someplace other than Lexington.

At Georgia, Kentucky once again demonstrated that when it is challenged, this team of immensely talented individuals players always pulls together to defeat its foe with a collective will. With the perfect season in serious jeopardy midway through the second half, the Wildcats had found a way to score consistently with Karl-Anthony Towns but they had to find a way to get stops or Georgia was going to win. And on seven consecutive possessions, Kentucky kept UGA from scoring and the game was won.

It’s only when asked about that these players acknowledge their potential history-making nature of their season but Calipari has admitted that these players want that special legacy more than than admit. It had been three weeks, since the comeback win at LSU, since the Wildcats’ streak had been seriously threatened, in the final five mintues of a close game. You could argue that seeing perfection coming closer on the horizon would drive them to excellence but there was also the chance it would cause them to play with a fear of losing. There was no sign of that mindset at Georgia.

Credit Calipari for addressing that issue in his halftime talk. And credit him for continuing to preach that a loss is not the end of the world. He’s been down this road before and he knows the tone a coach needs to set to keep his players from focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process of getting there.

At this point, the biggest risk to UK’s winning streak is Kentucky. If the Cats “bring it”–preferably from the start but at the least, when the outcome is in doubt–then they likely will not run into an opponent until the Elite Eight or later that is maybe good enough to beat them in that mode.

-Tom Leach

Uncategorized

Preach on, Jay Bilas.

On last Saturday’s “College Gameday” show on ESPN, Bilas talked about how Kentucky is doing things the right way, in everything from sharing the basketball and playing hard to avoiding off-court missteps. And he said such a program would be lavished with praise if it was happening someplace other than Lexington.

At Georgia, Kentucky once again demonstrated that when it is challenged, this team of immensely talented individuals players always pulls together to defeat its foe with a collective will. With the perfect season in serious jeopardy midway through the second half, the Wildcats had found a way to score consistently with Karl-Anthony Towns but they had to find a way to get stops or Georgia was going to win. And on seven consecutive possessions, Kentucky kept UGA from scoring and the game was won.

It’s only when asked about that these players acknowledge their potential history-making nature of their season but Calipari has admitted that these players want that special legacy more than than admit. It had been three weeks, since the comeback win at LSU, since the Wildcats’ streak had been seriously threatened, in the final five mintues of a close game. You could argue that seeing perfection coming closer on the horizon would drive them to excellence but there was also the chance it would cause them to play with a fear of losing. There was no sign of that mindset at Georgia.

Credit Calipari for addressing that issue in his halftime talk. And credit him for continuing to preach that a loss is not the end of the world. He’s been down this road before and he knows the tone a coach needs to set to keep his players from focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process of getting there.

At this point, the biggest risk to UK’s winning streak is Kentucky. If the Cats “bring it”–preferably from the start but at the least, when the outcome is in doubt–then they likely will not run into an opponent until the Elite Eight or later that is maybe good enough to beat them in that mode.

-Tom Leach

Uncategorized

Spectacular dunks usually dominate the SportsCenter top 10 plays in basketball season, but there’s nothing better to watch for me as a hoops fan than a pure shooter who is in a groove. And that’s Devin Booker right now.

He’s in that zone Jodie Meeks lived in back in 2009. I don’t know if Booker will be dropping 54 points on anybody but he might well have had a few 30-point nights by now if he played on a team without the depth that this Kentucky team has.

Former UK star Kevin Grevey, himself a great shooter, stopped by to visit before Saturday’s game at South Carolina, and the first thing he wanted to talk about was Booker’s shooting. He noted that Booker’s form is so good that you think every shot is going in and you never worry about his game even if he gets into a slump (Booker has had two different 1-for-11 streaks from the three-point line this season and yet is still knocking down 3’s at a rate better than 50 percent).

South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked about the Booker-Tyler Ulis backcourt combo after Saturday’s game and how UK could be good with either them or the Harrison twins on the court, but having all four of them takes the Wildcats to another level. Booker and Ulis have the luxury of playing as loose as one can at a program that gets as much scrutiny as this one does, because the Harrisons take the bulk of the criticism, especially Andrew.

Getting into those debates is counter-productive for Big Blue fans, but those discussions are also inevitable. The good thing for John Calipari is that all signs point to his players all being into the notion that the sum is greater than any individual part.

Kentucky hasn’t had many close games this season, but getting to the national title will surely require surviving some of those nail biters. And when those kinds of games come, Kentucky is likely to have some combination of three of those four backcourt players on the court at crunch time. And that has to be very comforting for a coach.

-Tom Leach

One of the benefits of broadcasting for the UK Radio Network is the chance to watch the Cats in practice, particularly on game days when Calipari and his staff are putting the finishes touches on the team’s preparation.

Last Saturday at Alabama, Mike Pratt and I watched as Calipari gave them specific instructions for how to attack the 2-3 zone he expected to see from Bama. And then to watch the game unfold and see those players execute what they were told was a thing of beauty. Those quick short passes from guard to baseline to big man cutting down the lane for a basket—not just a coincidence. Same for those open shots in the corners that the Cats knocked down. Those were the spots they were supposed to attack and they did it as coached. When this team is that focused, I don’t know if there’s any opponent out there that can prevail in a matchup with Kentucky.

Contrast that to the previous Saturday at Texas A&M. If you listened to our radio broadcast, you would have heard Pratt lamenting UK defenders running out to challenge opposing players at the three-point line when those players were not three-point shooters. Then, that player would drive by the on-rushing defender and break down the Cats’ defense. Those were things that were covered in the scouting report and yet, clearly, players were not as dialed in that day.

As Calipari often says, they’re not computers (as if computers are not prone to doing strange things themselves). Some days, a team this young is more tuned in than at other times—a fact that every coach deals with. But the two examples just serve to underscore that the greatest threat to Kentucky having a “special” season is Kentucky.

-Tom Leach