Film Session: Who can actually beat Kentucky and why

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“Can anyone actually beat Kentucky?”

Ever since the Wildcats jumped out to a 24-0 lead on UCLA on that December weekend in Chicago, that’s the question that I’ve been asked more than any other. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing a radio show in Omaha, a TV spot for CSN’s Washington affiliate or simply happen to mention what I do for a living to someone at a bar.

And the answer is yes. Upsets do happen. These are college kids, after all. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern before taking Kentucky to overtime in Rupp. Georgia and LSU, who have lost a combined five games to the dregs of the SEC, both held significant leads on Kentucky late in the second half. Hell, Columbia gave the Wildcats a scare.

But, I’d argue, Kentucky, for whatever reason, either didn’t play well or didn’t show up ready to play in all four of those games.

When Kentucky shows up focused, when they’re playing well under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament with a 40-0 season within their reach, are there any teams that can actually beat the Wildcats?

These six can:

VIRGINIA

The way I see it, there are three things an opponent has to do to be able to beat the Wildcats:

  • 1. Avoid getting dominated in the paint: The Wildcats can be downright overwhelming on the offensive glass, with their best offense oftentimes being a missed shot. And that’s to say nothing of Karl Towns, who has turned into their go-to guy in crunch time. Over the course of the last month, when they really need a bucket, John Calipari has been force-feeding him the ball on the block.
  • 2. Force them to shoot over the top of the defense: The weakness for this Kentucky team offensively is that they don’t have a myriad of great shooters. You want them settling for jumpers.
  • 3. Score early or late in the shot clock: Kentucky’s half-court defense is tremendous. If you can’t beat them down the floor for quick, easy buckets in transition, you need to have the patience to run your sets until you get an open look.

No team in the country can do all three of these things as effectively as a healthy Virginia team can.

For starters, they are fourth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, a stat that determines how many of the available offensive rebounds an opponent gets. Virginia gives up offensive boards just 24.0 percent of the time. By comparison, Kentucky grabs 40.4 percent of the available offensive rebounds. The Wildcats have enough size and athleticism that they will get to the offensive glass against anyone, but there isn’t a team in the country that is more disciplined when it comes to boxing out than the Cavaliers, whose front line includes 7-foot Mike Tobey, 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill, 6-foot-8 Darion Atkins and 6-foot-6 Justin Anderson at the three.

The talk earlier this season was that the Wildcats were on pace to finish the season with the best defense in the 13 years that KenPom.com, an advanced analytics website that uses per-possession efficiency to determine just how good a team is, has been in existence. That is no longer the case, as Virginia has actually surpassed Kentucky in defensive efficiency.

Virginia runs the Pack-Line, a man-to-man containment defense that involves tremendous ball-pressure inviting dribble penetration into help defenders. I’ve gone in depth on the Pack-Line before, but essentially, it’s a defense designed to force offenses into contested, drive-and-kick jumpers, which is precisely what any team wants Kentucky to do. Virginia is also notorious for only sending two players to the offensive glass, which will limit the chances Kentucky has for leak-outs and easy buckets in transition.

The other part of the Pack-Line that behooves Virginia’s matchup with Kentucky is that they completely take away any post threat with big-to-big doubles on the catch. Here’s what I mean. Look at where Darion Atkins (red circle), who is guarding Amile Jefferson here, is as Tyus Jones starts to deliver an entry pass:

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Screengrab via Synergy

Then look at where Atkins and Malcolm Brogdon (green circle), who takes away the pass to Jefferson, are when Okafor makes the catch in the post:

source:
Screengrab via Synergy

Here’s the play at real speed:

Virginia is the best team in the country at moving defensively while the ball is in the air. They can take away Towns’ post-ups.

Offensively, Virginia has had their issues of late, but when Anderson was healthy, they were a top ten team in offensive efficiency. It remains to be seen whether or not he will still be one of the country’s most dangerous spot-up shooters when he returns, which is critical if the Cavs do square-off with the Wildcats. Virginia runs good offense — they can break down Kentucky’s defense with set plays and rarely settle for bad shots early in a possession — but Anderson’s shooting ability will help to spread the floor and open up space in the paint for drivers, cutters and post-ups.

The final score may not even make it into the 50s, but assuming Justin Anderson is healthy, no team in the country is better prepared to knock off the Wildcats than Virginia.

WISCONSIN

Like Virginia, the Badgers are one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams, allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds just 23.2 percent of the time. They have the size along their front line to matchup with Kentucky — Frank Kaminsky is every bit of seven feet, while fellow starters Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8, respectively — and while they don’t have the depth that Kentucky has up front, they play at a pace that limits how tired their guys will get and are the nation’s best when it comes to defending without fouling.

Wisconsin is nowhere near as good defensively as Virginia is, but Kentucky doesn’t have the personnel to exploit their biggest weakness on that end. Where Wisconsin gets into trouble is with athletic wings that can slash to the rim and dynamic, play-making point guards, the latter of which is a bigger issue as long as Trae Jackson is still recovering from his broken foot. Neither Nigel Hayes nor Sam Dekker are particularly quick laterally, and when an opponent has a small forward that can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim — like, for example, Maryland’s Dez Wells — the Badgers are vulnerable.

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AP Photo

Kentucky doesn’t have anyone like that. When the Wildcats play Trey Lyles at the three it actually plays into Wisconsin’s hands from a matchup perspective, while Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison are shooters more than they are drivers.

And, like Virginia, Wisconsin often eschews chasing offensive rebounds, preferring to get back on defense, prevent easy transition points and defend in the half court.

All of that helps the Badgers, but the real reason that they are going to be able give Kentucky a fight if they square off is Wisconsin’s ability to invert their offense.

Bo Ryan’s club is the nation’s most efficient offensive team, and up until a few weeks ago, they were actually on pace to set a KenPom-era record in that stat. Everything more or less runs through Kaminsky, who is National Player of the Year and having one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory. He leads the Badgers in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, posting the numbers he does despite playing in an offense that averages the sixth-fewest possessions per game in the country.

Kaminsky does much of his damage in the post, but he’s such a fluid player for his size that he can step out and drill threes or put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, scoring or dishing to an open teammate. He’s not the only Wisconsin big capable of doing this, either. Dekker can as well. Hayes is shooting 37.0 percent from three. Duje Dukan, the first big off the bench, has had a tough year, but he’s a guy that capable of hitting two or three threes in a row if he gets into a rhythm.

And it’s the ability of those big guys to step out on the perimeter that allows Wisconsin to do some different things offensively. I’ve already gone in depth on how they invert their offense, meaning they use their bigs on the perimeter and allow their smaller players to penetrate and post up, isolating mismatches in a way similar to Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State, but it’s that frontline versatility that will allow the Badgers to get good shots.

Even against a defense as stingy as Kentucky’s.

And if there is anything you should know about Wisconsin by now, they have no problem using all 35 seconds of the shot clock to ensure that they get a good look at the rim. Take a look at this possession. Not only does Kaminsky run off of a pair of back-screens, but he passes out of a double team, which leads to a ball-reversal and a post-up for Hayes, who finds Kaminsky wide-open at the top of the key:

That’s tough for anyone to defend.

DUKE

Despite having some serious defensive issues, the Blue Devils have nonetheless managed to put together a season worthy of a No. 1 seed. They’ve won at Wisconsin, at Virginia and at Louisville, are 27-3 on the season and will be a trendy pick to make a run to the Final Four thanks to the presence of Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor will likely have a difficult time should he be matched up with Kentucky. He’s not in great physical condition at this point in his career, an issue that would likely come to the forefront as the Wildcats rotate through their trio of seven-footers and force Okafor to work his tail off on the defensive end of the floor.

Duke has had two main issues defensively this season. For starters, they struggle defending guards that can create off the dribble, either in isolations or ball-screen situations — something we went over in detail here. Kentucky doesn’t really have that personnel, which is a good thing for Duke. What they do have, however, is a front line that can overpower anyone, let alone a team that has been susceptible on the offensive glass this season.

The good news for Duke? They are the most explosive offensive team in the country. They were completely dominated by Virginia on the road, but found a way to score on 14 of the final 15 possessions, scoring 35 points in less that ten minutes against the nation’s best defense. When you can score in transition and shoot the three the way that Duke can, you’re rarely out of a game.

ARIZONA

I don’t love a matchup between with Kentucky for Arizona. Defensively, they should be fine. Sean Miller runs the Pack-Line defense like Tony Bennett at Virginia, and while his guys aren’t quite as good as the Cavs, they are still a top five team on that end of the floor. They’re not going to be physically overwhelmed by Kentucky, not with the amount of size and athleticism they have up and down their roster.

No, my concern with the Wildcats is on the offensive end of the floor. They can go through massive scoring droughts, and while the recent emergence of Kaleb Tarczewski as a real low-post option offensively is a good thing, I’m just not sure Arizona is good enough to consistently break down Kentucky’s defense. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be defended as a non-shooter. Stanley Johnson has had issues finishing at the rim all season, issues that will be magnified against Kentucky’s massive front line. Gabe York has been dangerous of late, but he is a defensive liability, as is Elliot Pitts.

As we went over in the Player of the Year Power Rankings this week, T.J. McConnell has been terrific in the pick-and-roll this season, but the ability of Willie Cauley-Stein — and, to a lesser extent, Karl Towns and Marcus Lee — to defend perimeter players limits the effectiveness of ball-screen actions against Kentucky.

Watch this possession from Tuesday night:

Kentucky switched five ball-screens involving their two worst front line defenders, and Georgia settled for a three from Marcus Thornton, a power forward that has hit nine all season long.

You can’t beat Kentucky with ball-screens.

GONZAGA

There are two reasons I don’t like this matchup for the Zags. For starters, like Arizona, so much of their offense comes out of ball-screen actions involving Kevin Pangos, which are no where near as effective against the Wildcats as they are against anyone else.

But the other issue is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s the vital piece to this puzzle, as he’s the kind of stretch-four that will open up the Kentucky defense and give Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis space to play in the paint. But Wiltjer is a liability on the other end of the floor. He’s not a good defender, he’s not a good rebounder and he’s not physical enough to deal with Kentucky’s bigs. Sabonis and Karnowski are, but those two will struggle to play together because neither of them are a threat outside of eight feet.

Wiltjer is capable of going off for 30 points, which is why the Zags made this list despite his defensive issues, but he would need some serious revenge-game mojo if this upset were to happen.

VILLANOVA

I don’t like this matchup for the Wildcats. I don’t think they have the size inside to deal with Kentucky’s big men, but they don’t really have the front line pieces to be able to spread the floor, either. The key will end up being Kris Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 stretch four that is shooting 40.6 percent from three. He’s not anywhere near the defender of the rebounder that either JayVaughn Pinkston or Daniel Ochefu is, but both of those guys do all of their damage in and around the paint. That will get taken away by Kentucky’s size.

No. 1 goes down again as Texas Tech upsets Louisville

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NEW YORK — It was the fourth time it’s happened in the first five weeks of the season, the third time it’s happened against an unranked team and the second time that Madison Square Garden played host to the carnage.

The No. 1 team in the country lost.

On Tuesday night, in the opener of the Jimmy V Classic, No. 1 Louisville lost to the unranked Texas Tech, 70-57. That’s the same Texas Tech that arrived in New York City on a three-game losing streak — against Iowa, Creighton and DePaul — and who was forced to play with leading scorer Jahmi’us Ramsey, who missed his third straight game with a hamstring injury.

Davide Moretti led the way for the reigning national runners-up, finishing with 18 points, while freshman Terrence Shannon chipped in with 13 of his own and Chris Clarke added seven points, 12 boards and six assists.

As we have become accustomed to under head coach Chris Beard, Texas Tech won with their defense. They held Louisville to 34 percent shooting for the game. The Cardinals were 3-for-17 from three. They turned the ball over 19 times and made 18 field goals. It was, to be frank, as bad as it sounds.

Texas Tech does this to teams. They take you out of what you want to do offensively. The Red Raider coaching staff scouts as well as any staff in the country — in the first half, with their defense right in front of them, they were calling out Louisville’s sets as Louisville was calling their plays. — and this put Louisville in an impossible spot. They couldn’t get good shots out of their offense because Texas Tech wouldn’t let them, but with a point guard situation that is can be flatteringly called a work in progress, they didn’t have anyone that could create offense.

Texas Tech forces you to make plays.

Louisville doesn’t have anyone that can do that.

And it showed.

Penn State upsets No. 4 Maryland

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Penn State used five double-figure scorers and played consistently hard on both ends of the floor as the Nittany Lions stunned previously-unbeaten No. 4 Maryland with a 76-69 Big Ten win on Tuesday night.

Losing by 30 on the road to Ohio State in their last conference game, Penn State displayed impressive intensity on the defensive end, limited turnovers on the offensive end and received plenty of help for star senior Lamar Stevens when he wasn’t having his best game. For the second straight season, Penn State upset a ranked Maryland team on its home floor as the Nittany Lions proved they’ll be a tough out at home all season.

Penn State (8-2, 1-1) received double-doubles from both Stevens (15 points, 10 rebounds) and big man Mike Watkins (15 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks) as the duo did a ton of damage on the interior. The Nittany Lions also had double-digit scoring efforts from Myreon Jones (14 points), Izaiah Brockington (14 points) and Myles Dread (10 points). With 19 assists and only eight turnovers, Penn State’s offense did an outstanding job of running clean sets and getting good looks from multiple players.

This is a quality win for the Nittany Lions early in the Big Ten portion of the schedule. It gives an unproven team a major boost of confidence — particularly beating a top-five team on a night where Stevens was only 5-for-13 from the floor. The Ohio State road loss shows Penn State still has a long way to go to be considered any kind of major threat. But Pat Chambers’ team is at least balanced and feisty enough to be a really tough out at home this season. A few more wins like this could put Penn State in the NCAA tournament picture with the kind of schedule they’ll play in the Big Ten this season.

But the major story here is the loss for Maryland. Because the Terps have some concerning trends they need to address.

Early in the season, Maryland (10-1, 1-1) has made a habit of falling behind early. It happened multiple times in an early-season tournament. And it’s now happened in back-to-back Big Ten games against Illinois and Penn State. While Maryland has been able to overcome slow starts all season with talent and comeback wins, a bad start came back to really bite them on Tuesday.

Trailing by 10 at halftime, Maryland tried to make second-half runs to stay with Penn State. Ultimately, the Terps were derailed by inconsistent offense, sloppy and careless turnovers (Penn State had 17 points off turnovers in the first half) and an inconsistent effort on the inside.

Maryland’s offense had 20 turnovers to only nine assists for the game as the Terps never seemed to figure out the proper way to run its offense. Alternating between senior Anthony Cowan Jr. (16 points) and sophomore Eric Ayala (15 points) initiating offense, both guards had too many bad passes and unforced errors for a team with Big Ten title aspirations.

It’s very clear that Maryland has the talent to compete with nearly any team in the country. Even on an off night, the Terps made this a one-possession game against a balanced Big Ten team with some veteran players. But Maryland can’t have these kinds of unforced errors if they see themselves making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

That mainly falls on Cowan. A few of his turnovers were stunningly bad for a senior floor leader. Getting stripped 35 feet from the hoop and throwing lazy passes for interceptions and easy layups can’t happen for Cowan. There’s just too much talent on offense for Maryland to be giving away points in close games.

The good news for Maryland is that there is plenty of time to correct some of these mistakes. Cowan can limit the mistakes. The offense will likely play better and more together. But Maryland’s slow starts are a trend to keep an eye on as it has been a factor for them in multiple games this season.

Bracketology: Cardinals, Buckeyes sit atop latest bracket projection

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At the quarter-turn of our race to Selection Sunday, the Louisville Cardinals lead Ohio State by a nose for the No. 1 overall seed.  Close behind are Michigan, Kansas, Gonzaga and Maryland.  The Buckeyes and Wolverines are the surprise entries among that group, although both have earned their positions with impressive performances out of the gate.

While the first turn provides a quick glance at the Field, we still have three-quarters of the race to run – including a daunting backstretch and the turn for home known as conference play.  Those grueling furlongs tend to separate the pretenders and contenders.

Early brackets are notoriously fluid; margins between teams are thin. Early projections also tend to produce some quirkiness – especially related to conference balance.  Keep those things in mind.  By next month we could see a lot of changes.

UPDATED: December 10, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Iowa State vs. Arizona State
SOUTH REGION Georgetown vs. Oregon State
MIDWEST REGION  SACRED HEART vs. PRAIRIE VIEW AM
WEST REGION MONTANA vs. NC A&T

MIDWEST Indianapolis EAST – New York                       
St. Louis Cleveland
1) LOUISVILLE 1) OHIO STATE
16) NC-AT / SACRED HEART 16) RADFORD
8) West Virginia 8) VCU
9) Penn State 9) Texas
Sacramento Sacramento
5) Arizona 5) SAN DIEGO STATE
12) WESTERN KENTUCKY 12) UNC-GREENSBORO
4) Kentucky 4) Washington
13) LIBERTY 13) YALE
St. Louis Greensboro
6) MEMPHIS 6) Villanova
11) Saint Mary’s 11) Iowa St / Arizona St
3) DAYTON 3) TENNESSEE
14) WRIGHT STATE 14) VERMONT
Albany Greensboro
7) Florida 7) Seton Hall
10) DePaul 10) Indiana
2) Maryland 2) Duke
15) HOFSTRA 15) COLGATE
WEST – Los Angeles SOUTH – Houston
Omaha Cleveland
1) KANSAS 1) Michigan
16) MONTANA / PV-AM 16) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
8) Stanford 8) LSU
9) Marquette 9) Colorado
Albany Omaha
5) Michigan State 5) North Carolina
12) BOWLING GREEN 12) NORTHERN IOWA
4) Virginia 4) Baylor
13) BELMONT 13) S.F. AUSTIN
Tampa Tampa
6) Purdue 6) Auburn
11) Oklahoma 11) Georgetown / Oregon St
3) BUTLER 3) Florida State
14) RIDER 14) GEORGIA STATE
Spokane Spokane
7) Utah State 7) Xavier
10) Creighton 10) Connecticut
2) GONZAGA 2) OREGON
15) UC-SANTA BARBARA 15) NEW MEXICO STATE

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Creighton Georgetown Iowa Arkansas
Connecticut Arizona State Wichita State Virginia Tech
Saint Mary’s Oregon State NC State Houston
Oklahoma Iowa State Richmond Oklahoma State

Top Seed Line
Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan, Kansas

Breakdown by Conference …
Big East (8)
Big Ten (7)
Pac 12 (7)
BIG 12 (6)
SEC (5)
ACC (5)
West Coast (2)
American (2)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (2)

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

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Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.