Kentucky’s daunting task of a title-or-bust is ‘unavoidable’

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Even for Kentucky, this was a rare season.

The Wildcats won 30 games in the regular season, rolled through the SEC regular season with a 16-0 mark and spent 10 weeks atop the polls. Freshman center Anthony Davis is the front-runner for national player of the year and coach John Calipari’s scooped up a few honors of his own.

Maybe that’s why Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final rankled Big Blue Nation a bit. Losing for the first time in 24 games – not since Dec. 10 – as the NCAA tournament looms is hardly the way to begin a quest for what’s really the only acceptable ending in the Bluegrass State this season.

“This year, anything short of a national title would be seen as a disappointment among the Big Blue Nation,” says Glenn Logan, managing editor of A Sea of Blue, a popular Kentucky blog.” That’s probably unfair considering the overall youth of this team, but when you go out and win 30 games in the regular season, I think stratospheric expectations are reasonable and frankly, unavoidable.”

It’s title or bust. It’s that simple.

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This is the most talented team Kentucky has seen since the 1996 team that featured nine future NBA players, dominated throughout the season and finished 34-2. It didn’t have anyone with Davis’ incredible talent, but John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says it was “deeper and meaner.”

Clay knows his Kentucky hoops, too. He’s been at the Herald-Leader the last 30 years and a columnist since 2000. He says this year’s team is better than the 2009-10 version that featured John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, two lottery picks who helped UK win 35 games. It’s better than the 2002-03 “Suffocats” who boasted a 16-0 SEC record. Davis and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be the top two picks in the 2012 NBA draft. Sophomore Terrence Jones is also a lottery pick.

When you roll out those superlatives, sky-high expectations will follow. Luckily for Kentucky, Calipari knows this.

The loss to Vanderbilt provides the perfect motivational tool because it humbles and focuses the players at once. Plus, it’s easier to shrug off the media attention as hype.

“[Calipari] thought we were getting full of ourselves,” senior Darius Miller told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the loss. “This kind of brought us back to reality, that we can be beat. I felt like we knew that from the beginning. He might’ve been right, though. There were times we went back on film and it kind of looked that way.”

That’s how one must approach a single-game elimination tournament. Even dominant teams can fall short of the Final Four – Kansas and Ohio State last year – let alone not cut down the nets. That’s a prospect that Kentucky doesn’t even want to consider.

“We’re taking every team serious,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague told the paper. “We’re not really worried about that loss anymore. We’ve got something bigger on our minds now.”

Music to the ears of Big Blue Nation.

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So, what will it take to cut down the nets in New Orleans?

Kentucky’s road to the Final Four is rated by both Ken Pomeroy and Luke Winn as the easiest among any of the one seeds. And if simply making the final weekend is half chore, that’s a start. Navigating the likes of Iowa State/UConn, then Wichita State and probably Baylor should be manageable. The Wildcats (32-2) possess significant size and skill advantages against all of those teams except perhaps Baylor. (The Bears’ frontcourt is tall, but usually soft.)

Those last two games are tricky. UConn negated Kentucky’s 3-point shooting last season thanks to a nasty defense (and maybe some ‘Cat nerves). This year’s squad boasts a slightly better offense despite shooting slightly worse from beyond the arc. It’s not as one-dimensional.

There’s no real weaknesses. Thus, the high expectations among the fans. They can almost taste this title, which would be Kentucky’s eighth.

Expectations aren’t like this every season. “I can remember many years when Kentucky fans were, or would have been, pretty happy with a Final Four — like last year, for example,” Logan says. But this is a special group. That’s been evident all season, whether it’s been during wins against North Carolina or beating Florida by 20.

Combine that with the time since the Wildcats’ last championship – 1998, an eternity in Kentucky – and it creates a fever pitch.

Mostly. Clay says the all-or-nothing question misses the mark ever so slightly.

“I don’t know that it will be seen as a failure, but it will be a tremendous heartbreak. Kentucky fans all but live — no, they do live — for that eighth banner,” he says. “To have a team they think is more than capable of winning it all, to go through the SEC undefeated, to lose the conference tourney final and still be ranked No. 1, to be the overall No. 1 seed, and then not win it would be excruciating.”

A Final Four won’t cut it. Only a title will do.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Wednesday’s Three Things to Know: Duke blows out Louisville, Texas Tech falls to Oklahoma State

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1. DUKE PICKED UP ITS FOURTH STRAIGHT WIN IN IMPRESSIVE FASHION (DESPITE MISSING MARVIN BAGLEY III ONCE AGAIN).

Duke was, once again, missing freshman star Marvin Bagley III with a knee injury, but it didn’t seem to matter too much as the Blue Devils ran past Louisville for an 82-56 win. Grayson Allen had 28 points to pace the Duke offense while Wendell Carter Jr. continued to look strong on the interior without Bagley.

CBT’s Rob Dauster explores Duke’s recent stretch without Bagley and wonders if the team might have a better defense without the All-American big man.

2. OKLAHOMA STATE UPSET NO. 6 TEXAS TECH AS KANSAS NOW HAS A ONE-GAME BIG 12 LEAD.

The Cowboys dropped the Red Raiders in Stillwater to earn a Big 12 upset win in this one. But the bigger story is Kansas assuming sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with another Texas Tech loss. The two Big 12 leaders are still scheduled to meet in Lubbock on Saturday as the Red Raiders will get a chance to even things up with the Jayhawks in the conference race.

First, Texas Tech has to get senior guard Keenan Evans healthy again. Hampered by a toe injury the past two games, Evans didn’t look close to 100 percent on Wednesday night. An unhealthy Evans is a big reason for Texas Tech dropping a few games.

3. VIRGINIA TECH GETS THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

On a busy Wednesday night for bubble teams, no team did more for its case than Virginia Tech. The Hokies took advantage of a depleted No. 15 Clemson in picking up an ACC home win.

While Virginia Tech has looked like a safe bet to make the field thanks to some big wins, the win on Wednesday gives the Hokies a fifth Quadrant 1 win — a huge safety net for a team trying to get in the field.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament hopes while he also breaks down the rest of Wednesday’s bubble action in Bubble Banter.

No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Williams helps No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Grant Williams bounced back from one of his worst performances of the season to score 23 points and No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57 on Wednesday night to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss.

Williams had a season-low five points Saturday in a 73-62 loss at Georgia. The Tennessee scoring leader responded Wednesday by shooting 8 of 13 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the foul line.

Florida trailed nearly the whole way, but threatened in the final minute.

Chris Chiozza made a basket to cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-57 with 24.5 seconds left, and he got fouled by Williams in the process. But Chiozza missed the ensuing free throw and couldn’t get Florida any closer.

Jordan Bowden made a pair of clinching free throws with 14 seconds left.

Admiral Schofield had 16 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee (20-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference).

Jalen Hudson had 13 points for Florida (17-11, 8-7), and Chiozza and Keith Stone each added 11. Chiozza also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Florida was seeking a quality road win that could boost its NCAA Tournament credentials.

The Gators entered the night 65th in the RPI and have a demanding schedule the rest of the way. Florida hosts No. 12 Auburn, visits Alabama and hosts Kentucky in its final three regular-season games.

The offensive struggles that have hindered Florida lately carried over. Florida had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (seven) during a first half in which it shot 26.9 percent overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Tennessee closed the first half on an 11-1 run to go into the locker room with a 27-18 advantage.

The Vols extended the lead to 10 early in the second half, but Florida crept back into the game while Williams was on the bench with three fouls.

Florida was trailing by just one point when it had two chances midway through the second half to regain the lead, but Deaundrae Ballard missed a 3-pointer on one possession and Dontay Bassett missed a baseline jumper the net time the Gators had the ball.

Tennessee then created some distance by going on a 7-0 run that included a Jordan Bowden dunk and five points from Schofield.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators continually misfired from 3-point range for most of the night. They missed 15 of their first 17 3-point attempts before making four of their last seven. By the time they finally started to heat up, they already had dug themselves too deep a hole.

Tennessee: The Vols got big efforts from their two top players — Williams and Schofield — and didn’t back down when Florida finally started making its shots down the stretch. Tennessee preserved its lead by going 13 of 15 from the foul line, including 9 of 11 in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida: Hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday.

Tennessee: At Mississippi on Saturday.

VIDEO: George Mason stuns Saint Joseph’s with second buzzer-beating win this season

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George Mason knocked off Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s with a ridiculous buzzer-beater for the second time this season on Wednesday night as Ian Boyd was the hero this time.

The Patriots went the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot as a loose ball ended up in Boyd’s hands at the top of the key just before the game ended. Boyd launched a quick prayer and knocked it down to give George Mason the unlikely win.

Earlier this season, the Patriots won on another buzzer-beater over the Hawks when Otis Livingston II buried a contested 30-footer to win that one. By this point, Saint Joe’s is probably hoping to avoid George Mason in the Atlantic 10 Tournament after the two devastating losses they’ve already endured.

Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.