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Slow start, rebounding prove costly in Kentucky’s title game loss

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Throughout the season the Kentucky Wildcats have been one of the nation’s best when it comes to hitting the offensive glass. Rebounding nearly 42% of their missed shots on the season, John Calipari’s team ranked second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. And with their superior size advantage entering Monday’s title game against UConn, the expectation of some was that Kentucky would be able to hurt the Huskies on the glass.

However that didn’t turn out to be the case and while the Wildcats’ free throw shooting (13-for-24) and the struggles of Aaron and Andrew Harrison didn’t help matters, their incredibly slow start and the fact that Kentucky couldn’t get those second-chance points were the real issues.

UConn led the game by as much as nine in the first ten minutes, and an 11-2 run would expand that lead to 15 with 5:59 remaining in the half. The guards struggled to get anything going with their ball screen action, and defensively the Wildcats had trouble containing UConn off the dribble. And that hole, which came as a result of the Huskies being the aggressors, proved to be too deep for Kentucky to climb out of.

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“Well you could say that, but the way we started the game probably cost us the game,” Calipari said when asked if Kentucky’s poor free throw shooting was the biggest issue. “Somebody said, ‘Well, why do you think you started that way?’ They’re all freshmen. They’re scared to death again. We tried to settle them down and we were rattled early. Then we settled down and started playing.

“But I have to give Connecticut credit now because the way they were aggressively picking up the ball. We told the guys, ‘If you don’t play with energy they’re going to.'”

That energy carried over to the 50/50 balls that can be so important in big games, with UConn getting the majority of those battles. And with this being the case, Kentucky was unable to take advantage of a statistical category that led to them being one of the most efficient offenses in the country this season (ranked 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency per

Kentucky finished the game rebounding 27.8% of its misses, and they converted their ten offensive rebounds into just seven second-chance points. Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle, Kentucky’s two best offensive rebounders from a percentage standpoint, combined to grab three offensive rebounds on the night. Get a few more of those 50/50 balls and offensive rebounds, and maybe Kentucky makes up for the poor foul shooting and the slow start.

But that wasn’t the case, and UConn certainly deserves the credit for that. Throughout the NCAA tournament the Huskies have managed to take away the opposition’s “bread and butter,” with their Round of 64 win over Saint Joseph’s being the notable exception. Against Iowa State the Huskies neutralized Melvin Ejim, and in their Elite Eight win over Michigan State they limited the Spartans to just six points in the paint.

Clearly the plan of attack Monday night was to do whatever it took to keep Kentucky out of the lane and off the offensive glass, and UConn was able to do so for much of the night. While Kentucky hasn’t defended particularly well throughout the NCAA tournament, their offensive skill and the ability to make plays when needed carried them through to the national title game.

But when faced with an opponent that proved more than capable of taking away what they do best, the Wildcats were unable to muster enough offense to win their program’s ninth national title.

Louisville backcourt struggles in first scrimmage

Quentin Snider, Jerian Grant
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While a few teams did manage to hold special events for the official start of practice this weekend, most simply went about their business with drills and conditioning. One team that was the exception to all of this was Louisville, which held the first of its two intersquad scrimmages on Saturday. The Cardinals had a head start of sorts on the season, as they played six exhibition games in Puerto Rico this summer.

One hope heading into Saturday’s scrimmage was that guards Trey Lewis and Quentin Snider would have better chemistry than they did in Puerto Rico. But according to Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal, that remains a work in progress for the Cleveland State transfer (Lewis) and rising sophomore (Snider).

They struggled in Puerto Rico, and they struggled again in Saturday’s Red-White scrimmage, the first public intrasquad practice since August. They played one half of the game together, paired with the presumed starting lineup with Mangok Mathiang out with an eye injury, a group that also included Damion Lee, Jaylen Johnson and Chinanu Onuaku.

That team lost the first half by 13 points to a younger group of Louisville players, and Lewis and Snider combined for eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, five turnovers, five steals, four assists and three rebounds.

“I thought (Snider) and (Lewis) did not play well together,” U of L coach Rick Pitino said. “They’ve got to get used to that. Neither guy made other guys better. That’s what they need to learn to do.”

As Greer also noted in his story the Cardinals have in recent years employed backcourt tandems in which both guards are capable of making plays for themselves and others. On the 2013 national champion team Peyton Siva and Russ Smith led the way, with Smith being joined by Terry Rozier or Chris Jones the following season and Rozier/Jones being the grouping last season before the latter was dismissed from the team.

Once Jones was dismissed Snider saw more time on the court, and his development was one of the keys for a Louisville team that fell one win short of the Final Four. Louisville needs him to take another step forward heading into the 2015-16 season, because even with Lewis’ experience at the Division I level Snider has more experience playing in Pitino’s system.

But while Saturday’s scrimmage didn’t go as well as anyone involved hoped, there’s still plenty of time for Louisville to work out the kinks before they open the season November 13 against Samford.

Knee injury sidelines Memphis assistant

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With practices beginning this weekend, not only are players looking to avoid the injury bug but their coaches are as well. And in the case of Memphis, the Tigers won’t have one of their assistants on the court for a little while due to a knee injury.

Assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who returned to Josh Pastner’s staff this summer after a two-year stint at Arizona, suffered the injury during a recent workout according to L. Jason Smith of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. And Stoudamire will require surgery, which will put him on the shelf for a little bit.

“He was working out himself and I think he thought he was in his rookie year,” Pastner said. “We think he’s got a torn meniscus, which will require surgery and put him out for a couple of days.”

Stoudamire isn’t the only assistant coach working through pain either. Syracuse’s Mike Hopkins, who is also Jim Boeheim’s heir apparent as head coach, suffered a neck injury body surfing during a family vacation last month. Hopkins spent some time in a neck brace while putting players through workouts as a result of the injury.

As for the Tigers, they’ll have a mixture of experience on the perimeter and youth in the front court as they look to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing out last season. Among the newcomers are talented forwards Dedric and K.J. Lawson, with experienced guards such as Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell and Ricky Tarrant (grad transfer from Alabama) expected to be key contributors on the perimeter.