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The Blueprint For Beating Kentucky

After breezing through the first seven games of their schedule, No. 1 Kentucky survived their first real challenge of the season on Friday, pulling away in the second half against No. 6 Texas to win 63-51. The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the Longhorns were tied at halftime and had the game within five points several times in the last few minutes. They didn’t even play that well - they shot 20% from 3 and turned the ball over 22 times.

If Isaiah Taylor was healthy and the game was played anywhere but Rupp Arena, who knows what would have happened. John Calipari’s team may eventually break the record for most players drafted in a single season, but that doesn’t mean they are unbeatable. While Texas wasn’t able to finish the job, they gave a blueprint for how to knock off Goliath and shock the college basketball world. Even the team with Anthony Davis lost two games that season before eventually winning the National Championship.

There were three keys to Texas being able to make it a ballgame:

1. They had the size to match-up with Kentucky

Kentucky comes into most games with a massive size advantage upfront, as they start 7’0/240, 7’0/250, 6’8/240 and bring 7’0/255, 6’9/220 and 6’10/240 off their bench. Texas isn’t quite as big, but they did have the size and physicality to challenge them in the paint. Rick Barnes team goes 6’9/285, 6’9/240 and 6’8/240 upfront and they bring in 6’11/240 and 6’10/260 off their bench. For the first time all year, the Wildcats played a team that could look them in the eye.

Unfortunately, instead of letting these two mammoth front-lines square off, the refs called a really tight game, keeping both teams in foul trouble throughout. The Texas big men refused to back down, battling for position all night and fighting Kentucky for every board. They ended up being +11 on rebounds, including grabbing 16 on the offensive glass, although that was partly the result of how many shots they ended up missing - they shot only 30% from the field.

A lot of that was because of the Wildcats defense, but the Longhorns missed a number of open shots too. They have three big men - Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert and Myles Turner - capable of stepping out and knocking down perimeter shots and their ability to stretch the floor presented some challenges for the Kentucky big men. If Holmes and Lammert had been able to shoot better than 2-10 from 3, the game would have gone differently.

Having big men who can stretch the floor is crucial against Kentucky. Otherwise, they can park multiple elite shot-blockers in the front of the rim and make life impossible on your offense. If they are allowed to pack the paint, it will be almost impossible to beat them, as no one in the country will be able to consistently score over their big men. The three-point shot is the ultimate underdog weapon, particularly in college basketball, where it’s only 22 feet.

2. They kept the game in the halfcourt

It’s no coincidence that Kentucky’s two lowest scoring games so far came against Texas and Providence, as both teams stayed in a zone for most of the night, forcing Kentucky to take the air out of the ball and make a bunch of passes in the half-court to get shots. There’s no way to beat them when they can get the game going up-and-down. The best way to beat a fast team is to make them play station-to-station in the half-court, where their speed can’t help them.

Limiting the number of possessions also lessens the impact of Kentucky’s depth, which can wear on a team over the course of 40 minutes. The other team’s big men will be tired from battling all the size that Kentucky can throw at them - they have to be able to take a breathe on offense. In that sense, the tight whistle definitely helped Texas on Friday. They went to the line 29 times, which gives them free points and prevents the break the other way.

3. They made Kentucky beat them over the top

The clear weakness for this Kentucky team is the three-point line. They went 1-for-12 from beyond the arc against Texas and they are shooting 32% from 3 this season. Nor was it a case of the Longhorns running them off the line, as most of their three-point shots were uncontested - Texas sat in a zone all night and went under almost every screen. They clearly came into the game determined to make Kentucky beat them from the perimeter and it almost paid off.

While it’s still somewhat early in the season, only one of the Wildcats starters - sophomore PG Andrew Harrison - is shooting above 35% from 3. His brother Aaron is the most prolific outside shooter, taking over 4 a game, but he only knocks them down at a 25% clip. And while Alex Poythress and Karl Towns have some range on their jumpers, neither has attempted a 3 all season. As a result, it’s fairly easy for opposing teams to shrink the floor against Kentucky.

Their best shooters come off the bench, as both of their freshmen guards - Tyler Ulis and Devin Bookert - have shown the ability to shoot from deep. Ulis and Bookert’s playing time will be something to watch all season, especially when Kentucky faces teams with smaller front-lines who will have even less incentive to close-out to shooters on the perimeter. If they can’t find a way to consistently shoot 3’s, they will leave the door open for other teams all season.

Of course, all those things are easier said than done, especially against the type of team speed and length that Kentucky possesses. They are going to win most of their games this season going defense to offense, as their ability to block shots and force turnovers will allow them to create transition opportunities and once that happens, the game is over. You have to be able to play good offense and execute in the half-court to have a chance against them.

Beating Kentucky is going to come down to point guard play, as even in a best-case scenario you are only going to play them to a draw upfront. And while the Wildcats do have two five-star PG’s in Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, they are underclassmen with real holes in their game. Harrison just doesn’t have the burst you would expect from an elite recruit and Ulis is only 5’9 155, which could be a problem against teams with bigger guards than Texas had on Friday.

Isaiah Taylor, the Longhorns injured PG, could have won that match-up on both sides of the floor, as he is much faster than Harrison and much bigger than Ulis. If you look around the country, many of the top teams can get high-level play out of their PG’s, from Arizona to Wisconsin, Duke and Louisville. PG is the most important position in the college game because everyone is so inexperienced that having a second coach on the floor can make all the difference.

It will take a wondrous individual performance, but there is a scenario where a high-level PG can control the tempo of the game against Kentucky and create easy shots for himself and for his teammates in the half-court.

Then, if you can limit the run-outs and easy plays at the rim and force them to beat you from the perimeter, you at least have a chance. John Calipari’s team deserves the hype they get, but they won’t have a cake walk to an NCAA championship.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Centers

Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects returning to school next season concludes with the centers. There should be a bumper crop of behemoths in the college game in 2015, who will look to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominate by guards. Last season, Kentucky turned that logic on its head, riding a wave of NBA talent in their frontcourt all the way to the NCAA championship game, despite very inconsistent play from their perimeter players.

Next season will be no different, as John Calipari will have more size upfront than a lot of NBA teams. It’s not just Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, both of whom would have been first-round picks in 2014. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee, while natural PF’s, could all play C for most college teams. For Calipari, the trickiest part will be finding shots and touches for all his big men. Either way, Lexington will once again be a prime destination for NBA scouts. 

Top-5 Centers

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky - Cauley-Stein was one of the more surprising decisions to return to school, given that he could have been a Top 15 pick and he is returning to a logjam in the Kentucky frontcourt next season. I’ve always thought he had a higher ceiling than Nerlens Noel - neither guy is all that skilled on offense, but Cauley-Stein is just as athletic and he’s much bigger (7’0 240). He can switch on the pick-and-roll and lock up guards already. If he develops a post game or a 15-foot jumper this off-season, watch out.

Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga - Karnowski hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity at Gonzaga - he backed up Kelly Olynyk as a freshman and played second fiddle to Sam Dower as a sophomore. However, despite their wealth of talent upfront, the Zags decided to run their offense through a bunch of 6’1 guards instead of the 7’0 300 monster at C. Karnowski is a massive human being with an incredible amount of skill for a guy his size. He averaged 10 points a game on 59% shooting - he needs more than 7 shots a game.

Dakari Johnson, Kentucky - Johnson is kind of the converse of Cauley-Stein. They both have the size to be NBA C’s, but while Cauley-Stein doesn’t have a ton of skill, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of athleticism. At 7’0 260, he has good touch around the rim and a decent post game, but he’s not very agile and his interior defense leaves a lot to be desired. If Johnson can cut some weight off his frame, return to school in better shape and improve as a rebounder and shot-blocker, he will be a lottery pick.

AJ Hammons, Purdue - Progress has been slow for Hammons, whose been stuck on rebuilding teams in his first two seasons in Purdue. Nevertheless, the physical tools are there - at 7’0 250, Hammons is solidly built and can move well for a player his size. He averaged 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 51% shooting as a sophomore. If he can improve those numbers as a junior and get Purdue back in the NCAA Tournament discussion, he will be a first-round pick next year.

Mamadou N’Diaye, UC-Irvine - I didn’t really know what to make of him until I saw him in person, when UC-Irvine played SMU in the NIT. I came away pretty impressed. He’s way more athletic and way more skilled than you would expect a 7’6 300 guy to be. If he was only 7’0, he would still be an NBA prospect. At 7’6, he changes the geometry of the game just by standing in front of the rim. He’s not the most compelling basketball player at this stage in his career, but neither was Roy Hibbert as a freshman.

Other names to watch:

Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Joel James (UNC), Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), Nephawe Tshdizivili (New Mexico State)

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Small Forwards

Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects coming back to school next season continues with the small forward position, a position which has become increasingly difficult in recent years. With floor spacing the name of the game in the NBA, it’s very hard to hide a small forward who can’t shoot 3’s. The problem is there just aren’t many 6’7+ players with the length and athleticism to match up with NBA small forwards who also have the skill-set to drain 25+ foot shots.

A small forward who can’t shoot 3’s has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, it’s become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - there’s no such thing as a role playing SF who can’t stretch the floor at the next level. Going into next season, there aren’t many players coming back to the college game who can play the SF position in the NBA, but there are even fewer who can shoot 3’s.

If there’s a role model for these guys, it’s Kawhi Leonard, who went from a 29% three-point shooter at San Diego State to 38% with the San Antonio Spurs. You just don’t see a player make that transition too often. For every Leonard or Lance Stephenson who become better shooters, there are a dozen D-League wing players who are a three-point shot from making millions of dollars in the NBA. If there is another Chip Engelland out there, he could be a very rich man.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona - RHJ started to come on strong towards the end of last season, moving into the starting line-up when Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury. Arizona had some floor spacing issues playing him with Aaron Gordon together, so he should have a much bigger role as a sophomore, with Gordon off to the NBA. From a physical standpoint, RHJ is as talented a player as any in the country - a 6’7 215 ball of fast twitch muscles with a long wingspan.

The most intriguing thing about his game is his passing ability, which he didn’t always get to showcase as a freshman, when he was more of a secondary option. However, he’s an excellent ball-handler with a great feel for the game, who had 6 assists against UNLV and 5 against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. If he can develop a three-point shot over the summer, he could be a Top 5 pick. Even without one, RHJ could have a long career as an Andre Iguodala type player.

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin - Dekker, like most of Bo Ryan’s players at Wisconsin, passed up a chance to be a first-round pick to come back to school as an upperclassmen. As a junior, he will be expected to team with Frank Kaminsky and lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. NBA scouts have little patience for older players who stay in school and plateau - to remain in the first-round pick conversation, Dekker will need to have a Big Ten POY caliber season next year.

At 6’7 220, he is a solid all-around player with surprising athleticism, who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds a game on 47% shooting as a sophomore. While he doesn’t have ideal size for an NBA SF, he should have a long career at the next level as a versatile player who can swing between both wing positions. After playing off the ball in his first two seasons, Dekker should be given the opportunity to create more shots for himself and others as a junior.

Alex Poythress, Kentucky - At 6’8 240, Poythress projects as more of a PF, but there won’t be many minutes for him at the position at Kentucky, where he will have to fight for playing time with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee. Poythress has the athleticism and shooting stroke to play on the perimeter, but he has the tendency to float and not impact the game when he’s playing too far from the basket. He’s still only a junior, which makes him an old man in Lexington.

Branden Dawsen, Michigan State - At 6’6 225, Dawsen is a freak athlete who plays much bigger than his size. If the NBA doesn’t work out for him, he might want to think about the NFL. The question for him is simple - he doesn’t have the size to play in the post in the NBA, like he does in college as an undersized 4, and he doesn’t have the skill-set to score on the perimeter. If Dawsen could shoot 3’s, he would be a first-round pick. Without a jumper, though, it will be difficult.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State - After being seen as a possible one-and-done player coming out of high school, Nash has turned in a solid college career at OSU. With Marcus Smart and Markel Brown gone, Nash will have to carry a huge offensive load as a senior. At 6’7 215, he has an elite first step that makes him a very difficult cover as a stretch 4 in college. However, to play in the NBA, Nash will need to develop a three-point shot in his final season in Stillwater.

Other names to watch: Troy Williams (Indiana)

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