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Kentucky Wildcats (10) @ North Carolina Tar Heels: Open Game Thread

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Does it get any better than this?

The Kentucky Wildcats go on the road today to the Dean Dome to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels, two basketball powers going toe-to-toe with young, talented players.  This is going to be a beauty.

Particulars are as follows:

Kentucky @ North Carolina
Game Notes Kentucky Game Notes Get Acrobat Reader | North Carolina Game Notes Get Acrobat Reader
Date & Time Sat., Dec. 4, 12:30 p.m. ET
Coverage TV: CBS
Radio: BBSN
Online Audio
Text Updates
Location Dean E. Smith Center
Chapel Hill, N.C.

It’s always tough to go on the road and get a win, particularly when you are heading into the heart of Tobacco Road to take on one of the most storied teams in the nation.  Every year that this series continues is one more great chapter to a rivalry that goes back into antiquity, and the great players that have passed through this frequent meeting of powers is legendary.

Today’s game is likely to revolve around who does the best job taking care of the basketball.  In the last game against the Boston U. Terriers, Kentucky forced 8 turnovers in the second half en route to a blowout win.  The Tar Heels have had trouble taking care of the basketball all year, and if Kentucky can force the Heels to turn it over at 25% or more of possessions, the path to a Tar Heel victory becomes tricky.

For Kentucky, offensive rebounding will be the problem.  Carolina has a number of talented big players to throw at the Wildcats’ thin front court, and if they are able to get UK’s big guys like Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas in foul trouble, the Wildcats could be in tough here.

What the Wildcats need to win:

  • A fair whistle.  There is legitimate concern that this game could deteriorate into a foul-fest because of the youth and aggressiveness of these two teams, and that favors the Tar Heels.
  • The Dribble Drive Motion.  If Brandon Knight & Co. can play the DDM the way it is designed, North Carolina will have lots of trouble handling Kentucky.  UK is a better 3-point and 2-point shooting team, and the DDM, if run correctly, will get the players good looks.
  • Post defense.  Tyler Zeller and John Henson are both very capable post players, and UK must try to force UNC to take more perimeter shots than they want.
  • Offensive rebounding.  Beating UNC on the offensive boards will be a major challenge, but if Kentucky can do it, they have a great shot at winning.
  • Maturity beyond their years.  Youthful mistakes have plagued the Wildcats at times this season, and the Tar Heels as well.  Harrison Barnes, in particular, has been off to a slow start, but against the young Kentucky team, he will feel a lot more at home.  The team that can best hide their youth is likely to win this game.

What the Wildcats can’t afford to do:

  • Get into foul trouble.  North Carolina has much better quality depth than Kentucky.
  • Turn the ball over.  The Wildcats have done a good job of taking care of the ball all year.  They can’t afford to turn it over in the Dean Dome.
  • Allow North Carolina to beat them off the dribble.  The Tar Heels have several brilliant athletes, including Barnes, Dexter Strickland, and Kendall Marshall.  If they get to the rim a lot, fouls will pile up against UK and that will spell trouble.
  • Allow a lot of open looks at three.  This UNC team has not shot particularly well from the perimeter, but that could change at any time.  They have good shooters who can fill it up if they get open looks.
  • Be passive on the glass.  North Carolina is bigger and more skilled inside than Kentucky.  Big efforts from Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson on the glass will be needed to keep the Wildcats from losing the battle of the boards.

This is the biggest game of the early season, in my opinion, because it is a true road game against a talented team that could be a real factor in March.  The Tar Heels have all the pieces, they are just lacking the experience and confidence to put it all together.  Kentucky cannot afford to let them use this game as an opportunity to start a rebound from their slow start.

Go, ‘Cats!

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Kentucky Basketball: Post-Thanksgiving Review Of The Connecticut Game

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Does this look like a happy bunch to you?

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Eugene Tanner – AP

Does this look like a happy bunch to you?

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I hope everyone had a joyous Thanksgiving, and apologize for not putting something up yesterday.  Unfortunately, cicrumstances conspired against me.  Nonetheless, I would like to wish a belated “Happy Thanksgiving” to all and sundry, and I hope it was a wonderful time for all our fantastic readers.

Between the time difference and the boundless energy of my bride, I was unable to find the time to post yesterday.  But I am now comfortably settled in to our digs for the next few days, and before heading out heading out on our next financial misadventure, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the Kentucky game against the Connecticut Huskies.

I asked Ken to write the postmortem because I had to get up at 4 AM to catch a plane, and as usual Ken did a bang-up job, and has already said most of what needed to be said.  The focus of this commentary will be more about the future, and less about what happened in Maui.  In addition, I am not going to talk much about individual players, but more about the team.

The Kentucky Wildcats clearly did not bring the same energy on defense to the UConn game as they did to the game versus Washington.  That really isn’t that surprising, considering the rigors of the Maui tournament and the relative youth of this team.  With that said, Coach John Calipari’s comments after the game were focused on the one overriding problem the Wildcats suffered on Wednesday — selfishness.

When you hear someone use the word “selfish” toward a basketball team, you often think of it as meaning an attempt by a player or players to dominate the game in order to enhance his or her own reputation.  I am 100% positive that is not what Coach Cal was talking about in this case.

In the UConn game, selfishness came in the form of a failure to communicate with each other.  It was transparently obvious to me that Kentucky’s players did not share information with each other defensively, and offensively, they tried to implement the Drible Drive Motion in a manner that violates one of its most basic tenets — the necessity to kick the ball out to open shooters when your path to the basket is impeded.

Brandon Knight in particular has a lot to learn on this point, but so does DeAndre Liggins.  Part of the blame for this problem has do go on Coach Calipari.  The reason is that Calipari’s first teaching priority vis-a-vis the DDM is to finish at the rim through contact.  Both Knight and Liggins have taken this teaching to be a primary one, but it is actually co-equal to the others.  You don’t want to try to finish through contact to the point of ignoring your teammates, and that’s exactly what happened with Knight and Liggins, not just last night, but for the Oklahoma Sooners game as well.

The problem can best be described as a difficulty with decision-making –  when you begn a DDM attack on the rim, you must make a decision about 8 feet from the basket wheter to continue the drive and draw contact, or kick out to the open 3-point shooter, or just restart the offense.  From there, if the shooter has a clean look, he puts up the shot, or reverses the ball to the weak side for an open look, a headfake and one or two bounce midrange shot, or restarts the DDM.  Kentucky had an additional problem in that our perimeter players were often out of position, which made it easier for drivers to choose the finish over the pass.

Coach Cal must now show his charges how to make the proper decisions, and players without the ball where to go, wash, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.  The ‘Cats did better in the second half, but the truth of the matter is, that performance was less a superlative by UK than it might seem.  Much of it was due to dynamite play from a hot Terrence Jones, and less to a vastly improved team effort, although the team effort was noticeably better.  The real improvement must come over the next few days in practice.

The other thing that was lacking was maturity on defense, but quite honestly, that is something that UK can only get to through time and experience, as well as repetition and effort.  We can expect the defense to be inadequate for a while yet, and it does no good, really, to bemoan anything but a lack of effort.  UK did not lack effort on Wednesday, they lacked technique, and you need good technique to successfully defend a hot team like UConn.  That will come with time.

I was impressed by the comeback the Wildcats made, although I never believed it would succeed.  With a more experienced team, I would have been seriously emboldened, but young guys can only sustain focus for so long at such an early time in their college career.  It takes practice and experience to sustain a comeback like that, something Kentucky is woefully short on this year.

In the end, this provides a “teachable moment” to the Wildcats, which I expect Coach Cal to use to its fullest advantage.  A loss is a loss, but you have to try to make the most of them and hope you don’t have to do it too often.  I am not a believer in the “good loss” theory, so you’ll forgive me if I reject that outright.  A loss is always bad, period.  Don’t bother to argue, because this is my story and I’m sticking to it.  Save it for those who are persuadable.

One quick final point:  A look a the Four Factors of this game:

 It doesn’t take an expert in statistics to see where UK went wrong here.  An eFG% difference of 20 percentage points is the only important statistic in this group. Even the turnovers, which were over average at almost 18%, were comparatively irrelevant (compare that to last year’s team’s frequent 20+ turnover% games).  Kentucky only narrowly lost the OR% stat, which continues to be a bright spot for this team.

I’ll have more from Sin City later, as we prepare to take on the Volunteers of Tennessee in a bid to break the longest losing streak in college football tomorrow.

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Kentucky Basketball: Enes In Chains

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Enes, we barely knew ye.

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James Crisp – AP

Enes, we barely knew ye.

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This article is not about ripping the NCAA for not giving UK what it wanted.  This is not about the process that declared him ineligible.  This article is what it means to Kentucky. This article will proceed with the assumption (likelihood, really) that Kanter’s appeal will be denied by the NCAA.  Coach Calipari put it this way, and I hope all UK fans will take it to heart:

“I think our fans get to (thinking), ‘Why is the NCAA doing this to us?’ They’re not doing it to us, they’re trying to figure this out,” the coach said. “I want the kid to play tomorrow but I want (the NCAA) to get it right.”

So lets move on to what this means.

I know that the conventional wisdom is that Kentucky is not going to be championship contender without Kanter. That may be so.  It may be that Kentucky can find no rebounding, no inside presence, and no post defense without Kanter.  It may be that neither Eloy Vargas nor Josh Harrellson can develop into serviceable replacements for Enes Kanter.

If that is so, we can expect Calipari to do what any coach would do in his shoes — play his most talented, athletic players and try to out-athlete and out-talent the competition.  We have seen this before, and it works, and can even work very well, but usually not well enough to get a team all the way to the Final Four.  But there is always a first time.

If Harrellson and/or Vargas are able to become serviceable, and even competent post players, Kentucky could potentially be much better than they would be without them.  The two biggest factors that will be problematic for Kentucky will be rebounding and post defense, and neither of those two specific statistical categories are outside the theoretical ability of either man. The question is, how close can either one get to that archetype?

The Dribble Drive Motion is not terribly demanding of big men, other than to use their bodies to their advantage and run the floor in transition.  I think Harrellson and Vargas are capable of growing into DDM big men if they will forget about themselves and sacrifice their bodies for the team.  Harrellson is the most likely to be willing to do this right away, but that’s not enough.  If Vargas doesn’t experience a Liggins-like epiphany and cast his personal desires away, it will be hard for UK to consistently run the DDM.  There is little chance that Harrellson can manage it alone.

Running the DDM with Terrance Jones or Darius Miller at the 5 is not really an option.  Neither of these guys have sufficient size to rebound the basketball consistently against bigger players, or the attitude required to perform that way as an undersized player.  What it would require is a Dennis Rodman or a Chuck Hayes — guys with either the weirdness or strength of personality, along with the athleticism, to do the little things that stars like Kentucky has do not want to do.  Harrellson may be willing, but in many cases, he will be out-athleted.  Does he have the strength of will to overcome those limitations?  So far, I’d have to say it’s doubtful.  But I’m not ruling him out.

Vargas is a better athlete, but he does not like contact.  That’s a deal-killer, and unless he can find his inner Undertaker and decide to learn to be physical, and that in a hurry, he will not be able to help Kentucky much this year.  A big body who doesn’t have the relentlessness or strength to battle down low is just a liability in the DDM.

This news will require Calipari to rethink how he plays his players.  I’m sure he has been doing this for a while now, but he has to consider the likely reality that Enes Kanter will not be walking through that door.  The DDM looks like the way to go now, since he has the personnel to implement that offense, and I expect that he will. He will undoubtedly also throw in some hybrid offense and make some defensive adjustments, possibly even some zone to help hide their lack of size on defense.  To my knowledge, Calipari has never consistently run a zone defense, so this may be a learning experience for him as well as his young charges.

Looking at the positives, this team will be similar sizewise to the 2006 Villanova Wildcats team that featured Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi, Kyle Lowry and Will Sheridan.  All that team did was go 28-5 and get to the Elite Eight before losing to the eventual national champion Florida Gators.  One difference is, these players are freshman and Villanova was juniors and seniors. Another difference is, this Kentucky team is much more talented than Villanova was, despite their youth.

In the end, this season is going to be far more demanding on Calipari than last season was.  Not only must he figure out how to win without a post presence, he must do so mostly with freshmen.  Remember the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?”

Calipari is living it.

How many games will Kentucky win without Enes Kanter?

  168 votes | Results

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