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There were bumps, but this was a successful season for Kentucky

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ARLINGTON, Texas — When the season began, Kentucky was one of the favorites to cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium. With the nation’s top recruiting class on campus, there was even talk of this group dominating college basketball and making a run at the first-ever 40-0 mark.

The Harrison twins and James Young on the perimeter, Julius Randle and a host of other underclassmen in the paint, and a head coach in John Calipari who’s proven throughout his time in Lexington that he’s more than capable of taking a truly loaded roster and leading it deep into March. Clearly a tough formula to duplicate, and also a tough one to crack. the expectations for Kentucky were simple yet lofty: nothing less than a national title would suffice.

But as the season wore on college basketball dealt all involved an, at times, harsh reminder that can be forgotten when considering the skill level of the elite freshmen who ply their trade for no more than nine months before moving on to the professional ranks. The reminder: no one’s given or promised anything on the court, regardless of how many stars are next to their names on the recruiting lists some fans obsess over every spring/summer.

Kentucky struggled at times, and as a result the talk of their being overrated and jokes about the preseason “40-0” chatter got rolling, with every game seemingly being a referendum on Kentucky’s players and the recruiting of individuals who to outsiders had little interest in anything other than the quickest route to professional riches.

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However after their loss at Florida to end the regular season, things clicked. Calipari talked about a “tweak,” and whatever that “tweak” (or tweaks) was the young Wildcats played with a level of confidence many expected to see all season long. The Harrison twins played with more confidence, Randle and company proved tough to stop in the paint and even with Willie Cauley-Stein suffering an ankle injury in the Sweet 16 Kentucky still managed to get to Monday’s title game.

Unfortunately for Calipari and his players they didn’t have one last answer against UConn, with the Huskies getting off to a far better start and ultimately winning 60-54. Randle didn’t have his best game and neither did the Harrison twins, and in the early going it seemed as if the magnitude of the moment (along with UConn’s skill) got to Kentucky. Young or old, headed to the lottery or a lengthy career overseas, that can happen to any player especially in front of more than 79,000 fans in AT&T Stadium and millions tuned in across the country.

“These kids aren’t machines. They’re not robots. They’re not computers,” Calipari said after the game. “I say it again, I wish I had an answer for them later in the game where I could have done something to just click it to where it needed to go. That [Aaron Harrison] three in the corner, if that would have gone maybe the game changes a little bit but it didn’t.

“So keep coaching,” Calipari continued. “What do we figure out, how do we do it? And obviously I didn’t have the answers for them. But I’m proud of them. They fought and tried and played a really good team that’s well-coached.”

The question now is how will this group be remembered. For those who hang onto the preseason prognostications and the talk of Kentucky going undefeated, the 11 losses will overshadow the Wildcats’ run to the national title. But this season was by no means a failure, even if Kentucky didn’t reach its ultimate goal. It took some time but the Wildcats grew, both individually and collectively. And regardless of what the next step for Calipari and his players may be, that’s something to be proud of.

“Even in that loss, I can’t believe what these guys got done together,” Calipari said. “Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting.”

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.