Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What’s wrong with Kentucky?: Why the Wildcats have struggled in recent weeks

1 Comment

Kentucky has reached a crossroads of their season.

They steamrolled everyone in their path for the first month of the year. Losses at home to UCLA and at Louisville were explainable, particularly when there was a win over North Carolina in Las Vegas between them, and forgettable once SEC play started and the Wildcats were doing things like beating Texas A&M by 42 points.

But over the course of the last three weeks, the high-octane Wildcats have looked like a mustang on the highway being driven with the emergency brake on. As Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio put it, “Kentucky is a bad basketball team full of talented basketball players.”

“You won’t want to be at that practice tomorrow,” head coach John Calipari said in his postgame interview on ESPN after the Wildcats gave up 58 second half points in a 92-85 win over hapless LSU, the fifth straight game they’ve allowed more than 79 points to their opponent. “If someone wants to quit, they can quit. Because this has got to stop at some point.”

This is a team with as much talent as anyone in the country. This is a team that, at one point, looked like an unstoppable force.

How has it gone so wrong for Kentucky?

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 07: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats defends against Antonio Blakeney #2 of the LSU Tigers in the first half of the game at Rupp Arena on February 7, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated LSU 92-85. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

1. This just isn’t a good defensive team right now: That’s the crux of the issue for this team. They’re just aren’t getting enough stops. They’ve allowed an average of 86.2 points the last five games and, in the last four games, they’ve gifted their opponents an average of 54 points in the second half. They were beat up in the post by Tennessee. They were beaten in transition by Florida. Yante Maten of Georgia lit them up. LSU’s Antonio Blakeney scored 31 points, easily the best game he’s played this season.

“They couldn’t guard us for s***,” said a member of one staff that has faced Kentucky recently. Entering the game against Tennessee, the start of this recent slide, the Wildcats had totaled just 16 possessions of zone all season long. They’ve more than doubled that number in the last five games, with a total of 27 possessions coming against Georgia and Florida. Coach Cal relies as much upon a straight man-to-man defense as anyone, so while that number may not sound all that high in a vacuum, consider that in 2014-15, he played a total of 32 zone possessions.

Early on this season, Kentucky was able to thrive defensively because of the advantage they have physically. They were bigger, stronger and more athletic than anyone that they faced. Malik Monk, for example, didn’t need to understand how to scheme against a pick-and-roll when going up against Hofstra’s guards. The result was that Kentucky could force tough shots and turnovers which, in turn, allowed Kentucky to fire up their transition game, which is as terrifying in its speed, ferocity and directness as any in college hoops.

That’s the key to beating Kentucky.

You don’t let them beat you in transition.

“That was our No. 1 thing: make it a half-court game,” said an SEC coach who has scouted Kentucky this season. There are a couple of ways to go about this, the easiest of which is limiting the number of players that are going to the glass. Instead of sending three or four players to chase an offensive rebound, only send the two bigs. The more bodies behind the ball, the harder it is to get uncontested layups.

The other part of it is to avoid making the mistakes that lead to fast breaks. Don’t commit live-ball turnovers. Don’t take quick shots or forced jumpers. Run offense. Get the ball into the post. Because, unlike some of Kentucky’s best teams, this group will actually make mistakes defensively, which leads me into my next point.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

2. This is what freshmen are supposed to be: One thing that got lost in Kentucky’s frenetic start to the season is that this lineup is as young as any that John Calipari’s ever had. His starting lineup includes four freshmen and a sophomore, and no one in that group is the kind of game-changing defensive presence that we’ve seen amongst Kentucky’s one-and-done players. There is no Karl-Anthony Towns. There is no Anthony Davis. There is no Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel.

“They were as talented as they come, ahead of the game defensively as a freshman, and that’s a unique thing,” said an SEC assistant. “Most are ahead of the game offensively as freshmen. You don’t get freshmen that are like seniors as freshmen, and [Towns, Davis, Noel and Cauley-Stein] were killers on defense.”

This team, with all those young guys, they don’t have those guys that are seniors on defense. Isaiah Briscoe is the veteran presence on the floor and he’s a sophomore 50 games into his college career. Derek Willis is a senior, but his ineptitude on the defensive end of the floor is the reason that he can’t crack the starting lineup in a team that’s desperate for perimeter shooting. The same can be said for Mychal Mulder. In theory, Dominique Hawkins would be the ideal player to put in that role, but if he’s on the floor that means that one of Fox, Monk or Briscoe isn’t, and that’s simply not a recipe for consistent success.

The larger point is that freshmen are supposed to make mistakes defensively. That’s what freshmen do. The bigs are learning how to do something other than be really big and play in front of the rim. Guards are learning about a myriad of different ball-screens coverages, their defensive rotations, specific game-plans for specific players. Once you get into the meat of league play, defending isn’t as simple as “just stop your man,” and at this level, an individual’s defensive mistake leads to a breakdown of the entire defense.

Point being, Kentucky doesn’t have bad individual defenders as much as they have young defenders, and young defenders make mistakes.

Which brings us back to the issue of Kentucky’s transition game, because their defensive issues are compounded by the fact that …

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. … Kentucky is predictable in the half court: It’s not a secret what they’re trying to do, as their offense is, essentially, one of three things: Fox trying to turn the corner going left, Monk getting run off of screens and hunting jumpshots, or Adebayo getting the ball thrown into him in the post.

All three players are difficult to stop individually, but defenses don’t usually play them individually. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting woes have been a talking point since before the season started, and where those issues manifest themselves is in the inability for Fox to get driving lanes and for Adebayo to get a shot at going 1-on-1 in the post.

Monk can win any game on his own, but ‘hero ball’ can also shoot the Wildcats out of a game.

“We knew how dangerous Monk is in the half court, but you’re going to live with him taking tough shots,” said an SEC assistant. “If he gets 25, making tough shots in the half court, you deal.”

Against Georgia, Monk had 31 of his 37 points after halftime in a come-from-behind win. Three days later, he has his worst game of the season and Kentucky got smoked at Florida.

The other issue?

There seems to be a lack of fight with this group. Talk to people around the conference and you’ll hear things like “don’t really see a lot of leadership” and “they seem disinterested.” Tennessee is totally outclassed in terms of talent but, as one person that scouted the Tennessee’s win said, “Tennessee just played harder.” In the loss to Florida, they got punched in the mouth and didn’t have an answer, as Florida dominated the glass, picked up every loose ball and lit up Kentucky in transition.

In other words, Florida did to Kentucky what Kentucky wants to do to everyone else.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. This is the danger of expectations: To me, this was the biggest take away I had from reporting on Kentucky.

Let’s look at this in a vacuum. As of today, the Wildcats are 19-5 on the season. They’re sitting tied for first place in the SEC with a good shot at getting a top three seed in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday. They have game-changing talent all over their roster and a back court that will be outclassed by exactly zero teams.

All things considered, that’s not a bad year to have for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.

But this is Kentucky, where sitting atop a power conference has people questioning whether or not the basketball team is actually good.

The bottom line is this: At some point, all teams get found out. Once a few games worth of film make it to synergy, the coaches in this profession are good enough to figure out A) what it is that you want to do and B) how to slow it down. The best of the best are able to win when their opponent knows exactly what’s coming and make their adjustments while on a winning streak.

Everyone else, including teams as good and as talented and as flawed as Kentucky, will take a few losses along the way. They’ll go through a slump, and that’s where the Wildcats are right now.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on on,” Calipari said, adding later, “[I] don’t want to shorten the rotation to five or six guys, but I will if I have to. I’d like to play eight or nine guys so they all get a chance to play, have fun, morale, all that. But you better deserve to be on that court.”

Duke dealt with this for a month before they made the decision to fully embrace playing small-ball. They’re 3-0 since the change. Kansas had their issues and they made the decision to play zone; it earned them a comeback win in Rupp Arena despite playing short-handed.

Kentucky’s 2014 team – the last Cal-coached team to start four freshmen and a sophomore, the team that entered the year with hopes of going 40-0 and entered the tournament with 10 losses, finishing six games behind SEC champs Florida – had ‘the tweak’ before making their run to the national title game.

Calipari has been talking this week about a ‘reboot’.

Will that be enough for this group to fix what ails them?

Report: Texas’ Jones to test NBA possibility

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
1 Comment

Both of Texas’ McDonald’s All-Americans from its 2016 class will test the NBA waters.

Andrew Jones will declare for the draft, but will not hire an agent, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-4 guard joins Jarrett Allen, the Longhorns’ star center, in utilizing the rule change that became available to players last year in which they can declare, workout for teams, attend the NBA combine and still return to school.

Jones averaged 11.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a freshman. He shot 42.5 percent from the field overall and 32.8 percent from 3-point range.

Allen seems the likelier candidate to remain in the draft as a potential lottery pick, but Jones came to Austin with similar one-and-done possibilities given his status as one of the class’ top recruits.

Texas, of course, is hoping both return, not just because they’re both big talents, but because incoming and highly-touted recruit Matt Coleman fills the major hole in last year’s lineup – point guard. If the three of them can share the floor together, Year 3 of the Shaka Smart era will be much more interesting.

Morrow announces transfer from Nebraska

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images
2 Comments

Nebraska was once again hit with a surprising and damaging transfer.

Ed Morrow, Jr., who led the Huskers in rebounding last year, announced his intention to transfer, the school announced Wednesday.

“I support Ed in his decision to transfer schools and wish him well,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said in a statement. “We appreciate his hard work over the last two years. Although I am disappointed, we will continue to recruit young men who are committed to our mission of building Nebraska Basketball with a culture of success in all areas…life, school and winning basketball at its highest level.”

The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s departure is a major hit to the Huskers, who are coming off a 12-19 year in which Miles’ job security was called into question. It almost assuredly will be again this year as Nebraska hasn’t been able to build on its 2014 NCAA tournament appearance, instead putting together three-straight losing seasons.

Morrow’s decision is surprising not only given he’d been a productive member of the team – averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but because he was born in Nebraska before attending high school in Chicago and both his parents were Nebraska student-athletes his father winning a national title on the football team in 1994 and his mother an all-Big Eight performer on the basketball team.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, coaches, the fans and the University of Nebraska athletics department for giving me the opportunity to play Division I basketball,” Morrow said in a statement. “It is hard to leave home, and Nebraska is my home. I was born and raised here, it is my parents’ alma mater, and I have a lot of friends here. But sometimes you have to venture out to pursue dreams and aspirations in a career. This is a sacrifice I have to make to better myself.”

Morrow’s transfer comes a year after Andrew White surprised Nebraska with his decision to graduate and transfer to Syracuse, which no doubt impacted the Huskers’ poor 2016-17 record.

Miles was on the hot seat at the end of last season and will assuredly begin this season there as well. A roster hit like Morrow won’t do much to help him improve the situation. Nebraska does, however, have three starters returning while Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland is eligible, as is Miami (Fla.) transfer James Palmer, Jr.

Lonzo Ball says “I’m better than” Markelle Fultz

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
3 Comments

Usually, it’s LaVar Ball that makes news for what he says.

His eldest son is now getting in on the business of generating headlines with something other than his play.

The UCLA star, who said he’ll enter the draft after just one season with the Bruins, claimed he’s the better prospect than Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

“Markelle’s a great player,” Ball said, according to ESPN, “but I feel I’m better than him,” “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously he’s a great scorer — he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”

Not exactly inflammatory stuff – like saying you could have beaten Michael Jordan, that you want a $1 billion apparel deal or a number of things his father has said – bu Ball is certainly projecting confidence. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s quite a bit of money – and pride – at stake with the draft, and Ball put up a season worthy of comparison to Fultz, who had great numbers but played for an abysmal Washington team. Ball, on the other had, had strong numbers while leading UCLA to the Sweet 16.

Both are going to go at the top of a draft that’s stocked full of promising point guards. Which player goes before the other remains to be seen, but it’s likely public pronouncements aren’t going to affect the draft order.

 

UMass hires McCall away from Chattanooga

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Leave a comment

UMass has found, once more, the man to take over its basketball program.

The Minutemen have reached an agreement with Chattanooga coach Matt McCall, the school announce Wednesday

“The tradition and resources that are in place not only make this one of the best basketball jobs in the Atlantic 10 Conference,” McCall said in a statement released by the school, “but one of the best jobs in the country. We couldn’t be more excited about becoming part of the UMass family and look forward to building upon the rich tradition that has been established here in the past.”

In McCall’s two years at Chattanooga, the Mocs to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and a 19-12 record this year that featured five-straight losses to end the season.

The move will take McCall out of the southeast for the first time in his career as he previously served as at Florida and Florida Atlantic before getting his first head coaching job at Chattanooga.

McCall wasn’t the Minutemen’s first choice to replace Derek Kellogg after three-straight lackluster seasons. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey had agreed to take the job before a last-minute about-face that saw him return to the Eagles program just before his introductory press conference was scheduled to begin.

“Matt is a rising star in college basketball coaching who has been a key piece of three successful programs in his career,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement. “He has earned a reputation as a relentless worker, a great teammate and colleague and a confident leader of young men.

“Matt has worked with some of the most respected coaches and administrators in the country, who loudly sing his praises. Coach McCall’s appointment begins an exciting new chapter for our tradition-rich men’s basketball program at UMass.”

Despite being the second choice, McCall’s reputation in the coaching industry makes him a strong hire, having worked under Mike Jarvis and Billy Donovan. He took over at Chattanooga for Will Wade, and brought the Mocs to a 29-6 record and a  12-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2016.

UMass went to just one NCAA tournament under Kellogg (in 2014) during his nine seasons leading the Minutemen.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s sideline demeanor as a high school coach

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
Leave a comment

South Carolina coach Frank Martin has the reputation of being rather, shall we say, intense on the sidelines during games.

The coach has a stare that seemingly could bore a hole through his players when they do something that doesn’t reach his level of expectation. Martin’s demeanor, though, didn’t just come into form once he hit the college ranks.

He was plenty intense on high school sidelines as well.

Martin won three titles while at Miami Senior in the mid-1990s, coaching the likes of future pros Steve Blake and Udonis Haslem. Now having reached his first career Final Four, that sideline persona has put him on the precipice of winning yet another championship, this time at the collegiate level.