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.