While there’s been a lot made about the Miami Heat’s adoption of a “pace and space” philosophy and its resemblance to Oregon football coach Chip Kelly’s spread offense, the real analogy for what Miami does in the college game comes on the hardwood. The Heat are the Kentucky Wildcats of the NBA: a team full of elite athletes who take great pride in their defense and can physically overwhelm the vast majority of their opponents.
Wide talent disparities are fairly common in college basketball, which has more than 300 teams to the NBA’s 30 and no mechanisms for revenue sharing or player dispersal. However, what John Calipari has done this year is truly remarkable. Elite college programs like Kansas, Syracuse and Michigan State tend to have two to three McDonald’s All Americans who play a prominent role; Kentucky has six.
Terrence Jones, an athletic 6’9, 240 power forward who will likely go in the lottery, is their third best forward. Their sixth and seventh best players -- Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer -- could conceivably have long NBA careers. And while the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins squad was undone by a lack of perimeter shooting in the 2009 Elite Eight, Kentucky surrounds their three future lottery picks with three perimeter players shooting at least 38% from beyond the arc.
Even more impressive than their 28-1 record is the way in which they’ve won: the Wildcats have only played in three games where the final margin was within five points. Similarly, Miami leads the NBA with a 28-7 record and a +9.5 point differential, with only five of their games decided by less than 5 points.
Like Kentucky, they shrink the floor defensively with Bosh (7’4 wingspan), LeBron (7’0) and Wade (6’11). All three can fly around the floor, leaving very little airspace in the lane for opposing players to operate. An NBA team shouldn’t be able to blitz a pick-and-roll and recover quickly enough to leave no room for shooters like the Heat can. In a 102-88 demolition of the New York Knicks before the All-Star Game, Miami’s swarming defense brought Jeremy Lin down to earth, forcing eight turnovers and holding him to a 1-for-11 mark from the field.
NBA offenses are built around exploiting a mismatch and forcing a double-team. That doesn’t really work against the Heat, who can throw waves of elite defenders at any player 6’10 or smaller. Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers are the only players in their nine-man rotation who aren’t above average athletes for their position.
Miami, like Kentucky, is a team built to generate turnovers, because just as a college frontline has no chance of keeping up with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones in the open court, NBA teams have no answer when LeBron and Wade get a head of steam going at the basket. At 6’9, 260+, LeBron can make even elite defenses look utterly helpless in transition.
It’s hard to truly appreciate their athletic ability until you see them in person. Against the Dallas Mavericks on Christmas Day, you could almost feel LeBron and Wade accelerating past the defending NBA champions, who didn’t look like they belonged on the same court. When the Heat’s role players are making their shots, Miami can make a game against a good NBA team as one-sided as a Kentucky home game.
John Calipari is 51-0 in Lexington as Kentucky’s head coach; the Wildcats beat Georgia by 30, Tennessee by 25 and Florida by 20 this season. The Heat have beaten the Pacers by 35, the Hawks by 30 and the Sixers by 20.
Such dominance inevitably leads to resentment. Just as NBA every season-ticket holder circles the night Miami comes into town, every SEC road game for Kentucky has the feel of a championship fight, as their opponents know a victory over Calipari’s juggernaut can make their season. In their only loss of the season, a 73-72 thriller at Indiana, the fans at Assembly Hall were in a frenzy for most of the game; it was easily the most thrilling game of basketball, college or pro, I’ve watched all year.
Kentucky is a 5:2 favorite to win the NCAA championship while Miami is 6:5 to win the NBA title. For some, this type of dominance is boring. Personally, I can’t wait until March Madness and the NBA playoffs to see if any team can meet the standard of excellence the Heat and the Wildcats have set in the regular season.