No. 1 Kentucky’s size, depth overwhelms No. 5 Kansas, makes 40-0 seem possible?

5 Comments
source: Getty Images
Willie Cauley-Stein dunks on Jamari Traylor (Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — On Monday night, Miami point guard Angel Rodriguez put together one of the most impressive individual performances we’ll see this season. He scored 20 points in the final 6:47, hitting five threes, including a contested, step-back 25-footer that gave the Hurricanes a lead over No. 8 Florida with 30 seconds left.

It was one of the biggest upsets that we’ll see before conference season kicks off, but that’s precisely what it was: an upset. Rodriguez is not going to be scoring 20 points in less than seven minutes all that often. He’s not going to be hitting step-back 25-footers on a regular basis. I’ll stop short of calling that performance a fluke, but the point remains that if Miami is going to count on Rodriguez to play that way to win games, they’re not going to win many.

In short, what Miami did on Monday was not repeatable.

For No. 1 Kentucky, Monday night’s performance — a 72-40 beatdown of No. 5 Kansas, a game wasn’t in doubt for the final 30 minutes or so — was anything but an accident. It wasn’t fluky, it didn’t feel out of the ordinary and it certainly did not come on the shoulders of an individual performance deserving unending praise.

MORE: If Michigan State can’t land elite talent, can they still be ‘elite’?

Simply put, this was a systematic beatdown of a team ranked in the top-5 nationally, one features five potential NBA first round draft picks. It was an evisceration of a program that has won a decade’s worth of consecutive Big 12 titles. We may not see a more dominating all-around performance than this all season long, at least not one featuring two teams that play at the high major level.

“Tonight we could have played our best game and it may not have been enough,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game.

And that’s what makes this performance so scary.

As long as they buy-in, Kentucky can do this every single night.

It starts with their ability on the glass. Outside of maybe Texas, there is no team in the country with a frontline that is as big, as deep and as athletic as the Wildcats. Their small forwards are Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles, both of whom are more physical and athletic than the majority of Division I power forwards. What’s more, those two will always be the third-biggest player on the floor. How do you keep a team with that kind of size off of the offensive glass?

Offensively, it’s impossible to do any damage against them in the paint. If you’re not trying to finish over Willie Cauley-Stein (7-foot), Karl Towns (7-foot) and Poythress (6-foot-7), it’s Marcus Lee (6-foot-10), Dakari Johnson (7-foot) and Lyles (6-foot-10). If, on the off chance that you do get an offensive rebound, there is simply no room around the rim to try and score on a putback. Think about it like this: Kansas finished Monday night’s game with 11 field goals. Kentucky finished with 11 blocks. How can you compete with that?

source:
Marcus Lee blocks Frank Mason III (AP Photo)

And here’s the kicker: that platoon we’ve all been talking about so much? It’s working. When your team gets winded after playing four minutes against a starting lineup full of future first rounders pressing and defending and overwhelming, John Calipari has a second wave coming in, fresh off the bench without a hint of a dropoff in talent.

They’re coming in waves, and they’re bigger, and more athletic, and they’re fresher.

“We kind of bum-rushed them a little bit,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “Every time they looked up there were reinforcements coming over the hill. It wasn’t substitutes, it was tanks.”

And while that statement is filled with the kind of exaggeration and branding that we have come to expect out of Coach Cal, it is a statement rooted in fact.

When Kentucky wants to be, they are going to be damn-near unbeatable this season.

The problem, of course, are those three pesky little words: “wants to be”. Cal can make all the excuses that he wants for his team’s first half performance against Buffalo on Sunday, when the Cats trailed 38-33 at home at halftime, but the bottom line was that Kentucky simply did not show up ready to play. Whether that was a result of a wild Saturday night, the players overlooking an overmatched opponents or binging on Chick Fil-A breakfast burritos an hour before the game, only the people in that locker room will know. But it’s inarguable that the reason the Cats found themselves behind is that they came out flat. Their press wasn’t energetic, their defensive rotations were slow, they didn’t get back on defense in transition, you name it.

In the second half, when the team finally woke up, Kentucky outscored the Bulls 38-14.

“It’s just energy,” Cauley-Stein said. “You can tell the games we don’t play like that. It’s just a slower-paced game. You can really feel it.”

It really is that simple, at least at this point in the season, because where Kentucky struggles at this point is in their half court execution. The sets they run are anything-but complex — ball-screens, dribble handoffs, post isolations — which often means they rely on the individual ability of the players to create open looks. It doesn’t help that on the season, Kentucky is now shooting 28.8% from beyond the arc. Factor out the 5-for-8 that Tyler Ulis is shooting from beyond the arc, and Kentucky is a rousing 10-for-44 from three.

If they continue to shoot like that, teams can zone them. They can play pack-line. They can slough off of everybody on the perimeter, packing every body possible into the paint to help nullify that overwhelming size advantage by taking away space.

As good as this performance was on Sunday night, Kentucky still shot just 43.1% from the floor and 6-for-18 from three.

But they turned 16 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points and 11 turnovers into 12 points at the other end.

Those are “energy points”, if you will.

Does this mean that Kentucky will go undefeated this year?

Well, I wouldn’t bet on it. I’d say 50% of this loss is pinned directly on Kansas and the fact that they simply are not a good basketball team right now. If these two square off again in March, Kansas will not lose by 32 points. I think even the most diehard Kentucky fan will agree with me there.

Someone is going to matchup with them. Someone is going to have the size and the length to hold their own in the paint. Someone is going to catch them on the right night, when their threes are falling and Kentucky comes out sluggish. Someone is going to make them pay for giving up 20 offensive rebounds in a game. Someone is going to go all Angel Rodriguez on them.

The Cats still have to play No. 10 Texas, No. 6 North Carolina, No. 7 Louisville and UCLA, who is ranked No. 23 in our top 25. They still play Florida twice, not to mention the rest of the SEC season.

The Wildcats look like they’ll be the better team every time they take the court this season.

If they can get through their non-conference slate unscathed, their chase for 40-0 will be a fun one to follow.

Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

VIDEO: Kentucky coach John Calipari shows long-range skills during shootaround

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kentucky coach John Calipari’s shooting touch is still there, even from long range.

The Hall of Famer proved that during Tuesday’s shootaround before the No. 18 Wildcats faced South Carolina in a late-evening Southeastern Conference contest. In a video posted on his official Twitter account, Calipari stepped up and drained a basket from center court to his players’ surprise.

The coach smiled as he walked off the court, showing the swagger and confidence he seeks from another young roster of freshmen and sophomores.

Then again, one key to a coach getting what he wants from players is showing them how it’s done.

No. 3 Boilermakers keep rolling by blowing out Badgers 78-50

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Leave a comment

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Vincent Edwards scored 21 points and Carsen Edwards added 20, leading No. 3 Purdue to a 78-50 blowout over Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

The Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) have won 14 straight overall, 19 in a row at home and have matched the best 20-game record in school history. The only other time Purdue did that was 1987-88 when it also won its first seven conference games.

Ethan Happ had 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Badgers (9-10, 2-4). Wisconsin has lost three straight — all on the road.

But they were never in it Tuesday.

Purdue made its first four 3-point attempts to jump out to a 12-0 lead, and then things got even worse for the Badgers.

Wisconsin needed more than 7 1/2 minutes to make a basket, and then the Boilermakers continued to pour it on.

Purdue extended the lead to 36-16 before the Badgers finally fought back to get within 39-22 at the half.

The second half was a virtual replay when Purdue’s first three baskets were again all 3s. And when Vincent Edwards drove in for a layup with 16:59 to go, the Boilermakers led 50-29.

Wisconsin cut the deficit to 16 with 14:50 to go, then allowed a 10-2 run to make it 62-38.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: Tuesday night’s performance looked very non-Badger like. They struggled to score, struggled on defense, got into foul trouble, couldn’t get to loose balls and had 15 first-half turnovers. They’re young, and, yes, they were playing their third straight road game. But they need to improve greatly.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just keep rolling along. They’ve held 11 straight opponents under 70 points, have made at least 10 3s in six of their last seven games and have won their last two by a combined 62 points. It’s hard to imagine Purdue playing much better.

KEY STATS

Wisconsin: Finished with a season high 20 turnovers. The Badgers’ previous high was 15. … Nobody other than Happ scored more than eight points or made more than two baskets. … The Badgers are 0-5 against ranked teams this season, each coming from a different conference: Xavier (Big East), Baylor (Big 12), UCLA (Pac-12), Virginia (ACC) and Purdue.

Purdue: P.J. Thompson scored 14 points and Carsen Edwards had five rebounds and four assists. … Purdue was 14 of 22 on 3s, giving them 10 or more in six of its last seven games. … The Boilermakers have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. … Purdue is 17-0 on American soil.

No. 12 Cincinnati beats UCF 49-38

Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gary Clark scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help No. 12 Cincinnati to a 49-38 victory over Central Florida.

Jacob Evans added 10 points for the Bearcats (16-2, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), who won their ninth straight game.

UCF (12-6, 3-3) got seven points apiece from Tacko Fall, Terrell Allen and Dayon Griffin, but struggled the entire game to get inside the Bearcats defense. UCF shot just 30 percent for the game and committed 14 turnovers.

It was expected to be a defensive game and both teams played up to that for the entire 40 minutes.

Cincinnati, which has suffered slow starts in its last three games, overcame this one by using speed in transition to beat the Knights down the court. That was especially effective when Fall, UCF’s 7-foot-6 center, was on the bench, which he was when Clark made a layup to put the Bearcats ahead for good at the 13:40 mark of the second half.

Clark’s basket was the start of a 10-2 run that gave Cincinnati a 38-30 lead.

UCF made a brief run when Fall got six straight points on two dunks and a layup to cut the deficit to 39-36, but the rally died when the Knights center missed two free throws on the next possession.

Clark took an alley-oop pass and slammed it home at the other end to push Cincinnati’s lead to 45-36 with 3:52 left in the game and UCF never got closer.

VIDEO: Chris Silva posterizes Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabrial

Leave a comment

Chris Silva is quietly having an excellent season for South Carolina, and while the struggles of the Gamecocks have left that somewhat under the radar, this dunk on Kentucky was anything but.