Kentucky was ranked number one in the nation in offensive efficiency (source: kenpom.com) going into its matchup with Indiana but when the big men couldn’t score inside and too few perimeter shots failed to go in, UK found itself bounced out of the NCAA Tournament. But whether you look at the top 20 offensive teams or the top 20 most-efficient defensive teams, a majority of them are watching the Sweet 16 from home. However, if you look at the teams that rank in the top 20 in BOTH categories, all four are still playing–Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova.
This was a Kentucky team too reliant on its offense to win and that made them vulnerable to the kind of game that unfolded Saturday night in Des Moines. Throughout his coaching career, John Calipari’s teams have almost always been able to win games with defenses when they would make under 40 percent of their shots. But this team managed to win only a handful of games in which it shot under 45 percent from the field and the Cats were winless when they scored fewer than 70 points. The defense got better late in the season but UK didn’t have the rim protection it needed against good teams. Skal Labissiere was the guy who was expected to provide the offensive punch in the paint and shot-blocking that this team too often lacked. As Calipari often says, these guys are not machines and Labissiere just wasn’t ready to be who this Kentucky team needed him to be at this time.
This season didn’t last as long as Big Blue Nation hoped but it still provided a lot of fun times. I love watching great guards and the tandem of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray was spectacular. Ulis, in particular, was amazingly consistent. It’s one thing to bring the effort every game but quite another to also match it with production and Ulis delivered almost every time he took the court. We knew how good he was but nobody nationally was talking about Ulis as the nation’s best point guard when the season started. Now, Ulis is one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy that goes to the player-of-the-year and he should have been a consensus first-team All-America (the US Basketball Writers Association members who put Ben Simmons on the first team ahead of Ulis should have their voting privileges suspended for a year).
As a basketball fan, I’m rooting primarily for two teams at this point–Gonzaga because of Kyle Wiltjer and Notre Dame, which endured such a tough beating to UK last year in Cleveland. I’d love to see either or both make it to a Final Four but I don’t think the Irish will get past UNC. I’ll pick Carolina, Gonzaga, Oklahoma and Kansas to make it to Houston.
This Kentucky team has always reminded me in many of Calipari’s second team, with which I thought he did one of his best coaching jobs. He took a team heavily leaning on guard play and worked to find the most effective way for them to play and guided them to a Final Four. That team had more of an inside presence than this one does but it lacked the injury issues that this squad has encountered.
As in 2011, the Wildcats begin their NCAA Tournament run as a four-seed. Their opponent then, Princeton, was probably a worse matchup than I think Stonybrook will be for this team. As much trouble as UK will have defending big man Jameel Warney in the low post, he figures to have just as much trouble at the other end of the court. And if Skal Labissiere can stay out of foul trouble and grab enough rebounds to stay on the court, he could pose big problems for Stonybrook when Kentucky has the ball.
A coach hopes to enter March with a healthy team that is full of players whose games are trending upward and other than Skal’s regression in the A&M game, Kentucky can check off those boxes. Conventional wisdom says teams with good guard play are dangerous in March Madness and there’s no better backcourt in the country than Ulis and Murray.
Stonybrook will hang close for awhile but I think Kentucky advances in convincing fashion and my upset special is that their second-round opponent will be Chattanooga, not Indiana.
It’s quite likely that American Pharaoh won the Kentucky Derby last year while being less than 100 percent fit, because of the training time that he missed after a minor ailment late in his two-year old year. He just so far superior to his competition that he could still win the sport’s biggest race at less than his best. In other years, winning the Derby is all about peaking at the right time, as a horse like Giacomo did in 2005 or Sea Hero in ’93 or any of several other examples.
In college basketball, this national title chase is all about being that horse that runs big at the right time and gets some racing luck. And when it comes to the first half of that equation, John Calipari seems to have his Wildcats trending in the right direction. UK will go to Nashville this week for the SEC Tournament fully healthy, rested and with its key players feeling good about their way their individual games are going. That combination of factors, paired with what may well be the best set of guards in the nation, should make Kentucky a very dangerous team on the tournament trail.
There are some seasons in which winning the league tournament means very little to NCAA Tournament success (see 2012, which lost the title game to Vandy). But for this UK team, I think it’s important to do well in the SEC Tourney, which means at least reaching the title game and playing well in it. I think storming to a conference tournament title was a big boost for the 2011 team that reached the Final Four as a four-seed and I think getting to the SEC Tourney title game and playing Florida to the wire was equally important to the 2014 squad’s improbable run to the national title game.
Come Saturday afternoon, I expect UK to face off against South Carolina, with Vandy and Texas A&M in the other half of the bracket. And on Sunday, the Wildcats will avenge their most recent loss, defeating the Commodores in the title game.
When this season began, I thought this team reminded me of Calipari’s second team in that it was guard-oriented and that feeling has only increased for me as this campaign has unfolded. That 2011 group was the one in Calipari’s run that relied heaviest on three-point shooting and if this group makes a March run, that stat will be a key piece of the puzzle–once Derek Willis returns.
I make this point to help BBN cope with the Vanderbilt loss. First, Willis’ absence made this matchup an extra tough one for the Wildcats. Secondly, that 2011 team lost at Arkansas on February 23 to fall to 19-8 overall and 7-6 in the league. That squad, like this one, had trouble make the winning plays that decided close games but once they started to do it, they didn’t stop until the Final Four.
Kentucky is in the midst of a stretch of five games in 12 days, with three of those games on the road. Even a loss at Florida tomorrow would not doom this team but if they can survive the trip to Gainesville, the Cats would likely be seeded no lower than four in the NCAA Tournament. And the best news is that UK will then only have one game over nine days and it’s at home. It’s quite possible the Cats are a little dead-legged right now but that upcoming stretch will freshen up those legs and with a healthy Willis, Kentucky will be positioned to take its shot at getting hot on the tournament trail.
Florida’s 80-61 loss at Kentucky three-plus weeks ago started the Gators on a slide that has seen them lose four of six games–two of them at home–that followed the trip to Rupp. Florida’s defense has slipped and its turnover count has grown and UF is in danger of playing its way out of the NCAA Tournament. In the game in Lexington, Jamal Murray went for 35 and he and Tyler Ulis combined to hit 20 of 33 shots. Given this game is on the road, and the end of a tough stretch on the schedule, it’s unlikely those numbers will be repeated so it’s imperative that the “bigs” give Kentucky something tomorrow night–especially Poythress, who did not play against the Gators at Rupp.
A controversial late technical foul spoiled the night for the Wildcats on Saturday at Texas A&M, but assuming Alex Poythress and Derek Willis return to the lineup–and there’s good reason to believe they will–then the performance against the Aggies made me feel even better about UK’s chances of making a deep run in March.
There were plenty of reasons to think the Wildcats would lose–making a long trip to play a second game in 48 hours, the crazy atmosphere ESPN’s “Gameday” show brings to a campus when UK is in town and the injuries. So for Kentucky to overcome all of that and be only a questionable call and one last defensive stop from winning says plenty about where the Cats are right now. And if Isaac Humphries can provide more of the inside presence we saw late in this game, the optimism level grows even higher.
Humphries was crushed about getting the “T” but without the way he rebounded, the outcome would likely have been decided in A&M’s favor long before that call was made. Humphries has worked hard in daily drills with assistant coach Kenny Payne and he’s in much better shape. Hopefully, he’ll focus on the rebounds and not the call and come away from this game with renewed confidence.
With Kentucky likely to play without Poythress and Willis tomorrow night against Alabama, the game becomes much tougher. A win at Kentucky might punch Bama’s ticket to the NCAA Tourney but I recall that the Tide really struggled to defend UK’s pick-and-roll game last month in Tuscaloosa. Marcus Lee has improved markedly in running that play lately so he could play a big role in the Cats’ surviving with a thin roster. And since Bama doesn’t have quite as much inside bulk as A&M, Skal Labissiere may have a better chance for success in this contest.
One thing we know from Kentucky’s 89-62 rout of South Carolina–the Wildcats play well when they’re mad.
Seemingly ignited by the ejection of their head coach, the Cats pounded South Carolina with a ruthless swagger (Ulis throws a ball off the backboard for a teammate to dunk–are you kidding? Ditto for Jamal Murray’s full-facial slam over a USC player).
It’s hard to imagine any point guard in the nation playing better than Ulis right now. And how many teams would have let the point guard “coach” the offense by calling the plays UK would run after the head coach left the sidelines? Since the Auburn loss, Ulis is averaging more than 20 points per game, shooting almost 60 percent from the field and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5-to-1. And also take notice of how poorly the other team’s point guards’ stats are lately.
And Murray seems to be getting a firmer grasp on the way Calipari wants him to play, with a chance to notch a UK freshman record if he scores 20 or more for a fifth consecutive game this Thursday against Tennessee. With Ulis, UK has a championship-caliber point guard and in Murray, it’s looking like the Cats might also have that player similar to Oklahoma’s Buddy Heild, who can take over a close game and put a team on his back.
Kentucky answered the call Saturday when it came to knocking the “soft” label some have hung on the team. With three road games among the next five, the Wildcats now can emphasize that point and put themselves in a position to get a much more favorable seeding than appeared possible a couple of weeks ago.
We’re just over four weeks from Selection Sunday and despite some surprising stumbles, the Kentucky Wildcats are starting to look like a team that will have a shot to make another Final Four run.
John Calipari’s teams almost always are able to win games when they don’t shoot well because of how they defend, but this team wasn’t looking like that until recently. The coach put added emphasis on defense, in particular “team” defense, after the collapse at Tennessee and the Wildcats have embraced the message from Calipari.
Defense travels better than offense so let’s see if Kentucky can validate the improvement on that end of the court when they hit the road Saturday to play South Carolina. Keeping opponents from shooting a high percentage is crucial because this UK team is at its best in transition and the best way to get into transition offense is off rebounding missed shots by the opposition (since Cal’s teams typically are not among the leaders in steals and this one lacks the rim protectors of past UK squads). Kentucky still fouls too much but they have done a better job of defending straight-line drives in the last two games.
The defensive improvement is a compliment to UK’s biggest asset for tournament time–the backcourt. Tyler Ulis is one of the country’s top point guards and now Jamal Murray is getting a better handle on how Calipari wants him to play. Oklahoma is a prime national title contender in part because it has Buddy Heild, a player capable of putting his team on his shoulders under any circumstance in a close game. There aren’t many of those out there but I think Murray can be one of them.
Back in the summer, he almost single-handedly led Canada to a win over the USA in a Pan Am Games matchup. Sometimes, a player can have a big night because of a favorable matchup (i.e. Wayne Selden v. UK last month) but a player like Heild, and hopefully Murray, is capable of scoring 30 just because his team needs him to take over. That kind of asset can win you a close game in the tournament.
The addition of Derek Willis has been crucial for UK to help space out the floor and between now and March, the “bigs” for this team just need to develop some level of consistency in their contribution.