Isaiah Briscoe

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Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

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The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

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If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

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On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Kentucky’s star to undergo MRI on back

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives down court against the Michigan State Spartans in the first half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Isaiah Briscoe will undergo an MRI after missing his second straight game on Friday night.

Briscoe injured his back after a hard fall in Kentucky’s win over Duquesne.

“They’re going to do an MRI tonight because they’re surprised it’s still bothering him,” head coach John Calipari said after a 111-76 win over UT-Martin. “Let’s hope it’s clear for his sake.”

Cal made sure to note that the MRI was precautionary.

Briscoe is averaging 18 points this season, Kentucky’s leading scorer. He was fifth in the latest NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III leads the way

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks in action against the Duke Blue Devils in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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I know we’re not even two weeks into the college basketball season.

I know that conference play doesn’t start for another month and change.

I know that you may think it’s too early to start talking about National Player of the Year.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not.

Last year, Denzel Valentine was the guy that deserved to win National Player of the Year. His hype train got rolling on the fifth day of the season, when he had 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists to beat Kansas in the Champions Classic. Adam Morrison turned himself into a favorite to win the 2006 National Player of the Year award when he went for 43 points in a classic, three-overtime win over Michigan State in the Maui Invitational. In 2011, Kemba Walker announced his Player of the Year candidacy with a resounding performance in Maui; he won a title, but it was Jimmer-mania that cost him the individual hardware.

These things can carry over in college hoops.

Who are the guys that are top of the class today?

1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: In college football, we’re always waiting for a player to have their ‘Heisman Moment’, the play that they make that is so memorable, so ever-lasting that it gets so ingrained in the minds of voters that we cannot possibly pick anyone else to receive college football’s Player of the Year trophy. There really is no equivalent for that in college basketball, which is partially the result of the fact that there are a half-dozen college basketball player of the year awards that are given out.

Nonetheless, if we did decide to start referring to Wooden Moments or Heisman Moments, the leader in the clubhouse two weeks into the season is Mason’s game-winning jumper to beat Duke in Madison Square Garden during the Champions Classic.

That came on the heels of a 30 point performance where, like the Duke game, Kansas’ offense down the stretch was, as Bill Self put it, “Get out of [Mason’s] way and he’ll shoot it.”

On the season, he’s averaging 22.3 points, 5.5 assists, 4.0 boards and 0.25 game-winners a night.

The best part? In the video that Kansas released of the postgame locker room celebration, we get a #BIFM at the :12 mark.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Simply put, Hart has been the best player for the Wildcats this season. He’s averaging 19.2 points, shooting 57.4 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three. He’s one of their best weapons defensively and is one of the major reasons they are so versatile on that end of the floor. He’s attacking defenses in ball-screen actions and creating offense in the half court on his own. I’m not sure what else there is to say. He may not have the NBA upside of some of the other players on this list, but he is just a damn good basketball player.

3. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Blackmon has been one of the biggest surprises of the season for me. We knew about how good he was as a shooter. What I didn’t realize is what he can do off the bounce. In Indiana’s win over Kansas in Hawai’i, he was their best player on the floor, finishing with 26 points and creating offense when it looked like Indiana’s offense was stalled. That’s huge for a team that is looking to replace Yogi Ferrell.

4. Luke Kennard, Duke: If the season ended today, Luke Kennard would be a first-team all-american. Take a second and think about how crazy that is. Back in September when practice was starting, we weren’t even sure if Kennard was going to be first-team all-Duke; Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum were projected to start on the wings while Frank Jackson was this season’s prized freshman point guard.

But with all of the injuries the Blue Devils are dealing with, Kennard has been the guy that has shined. He had 22 points, five boards and five assists in the game against Kansas at the Champions Classic. He went for 24 points in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic title game against Rhode Island. He’s currently Duke’s leading scorer at 18.6 points while also chipping in 3.6 assists. We’ve reached a point in time where Coach K has to find a way to get Kennard on the floor. I doubt he’ll find himself this high in these rankings come February, but the fact that he’s here right now tells you all you need to know about the Blue Devils.

5. Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky: I was torn on which Kentucky player belongs on this list. De’Aaron Fox has been excellent at the point guard spot. Malik Monk was sensational in Kentucky’s only big win, when they beat Michigan State. His ability to shoot is the most important skill anyone on Kentucky has.

But to me, this far into the season, Briscoe has been Kentucky’s best player. He’s impossible to stop when he gets going downhill at the rim, he’s excellent in transition and he’s one of the best defensive options on a team that is going to win because of the way that they can defend. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here, but to date, Briscoe has totally exceeded my expectations.

6. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Three games into his college career, Fultz has already gone for 30 points twice and is averaging 27.0 points, 6.7 assists, 5.3 boards, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 67.5 percent from the floor and 50.0 percent from three.

Read those numbers again.

The problem? U-Dub already lost to Yale at home, giving up 98 points to a team that graduated their best player from last season and was without their two best players this season. They’ve been better the last two games, which hopefully means that the Huskies will, at some point, get good enough that Fultz can realistically be in the Player of the Year conversation.

7. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, 4.0 boards and 3.5 steals.

Those are the numbers that Evans is currently averaging. Granted, the best team that Oklahoma State has faced this season is UConn, who is actually atrocious this year, so we’ll have to play the wait-and-see game with him. But it’s fair to say that this kid is probably the real deal. Brad Underwood could have done a lot worse in picking a high-major coaching gig than the one where he gets to coach that kid.

8. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: It’s hard to pick any particular player from UCLA to be on this list because there are so many Bruins that are having great seasons. Ball is averaging 16.3 points and is the fourth-leading scorer on this team. He’s also averaging 9.0 assists and 6.3 boards and is the engine of the high-powered Bruin offense. The Bruins still haven’t played anyone this season. They’ll get their first real test on December 3rd, when they pay a visit to Kentucky and Rupp Arena.

9. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has had a couple of quiet games in a row in Hawai’i, but overall, his improvement at the point guard spot is the biggest reason that the Tar Heels look like they are the second-best team in the ACC right now. Roy Williams’ best teams have always had elite point guard play, and I think it’s fair to argue that this team is getting close to that level.

10. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: We know about Swanigan’s size and his physicality and how well he can play in the post and all of that. Did you know about his passing ability? He hasn’t had less than three assists in a game yet this season. His ability to work high-low action with 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas is what makes the Boilermakers so dangerous. On the season, he’s averaging 20.7 points, 13.0 boards and 4.3 assists, and he became the only player not named Ben Simmons or Blake Griffin to have 20 points, 20 boards and five assists in a game in the last decade.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Melo Trimble, Maryland
Mo Watson, Creighton
Deandre Burnett, Ole Miss
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State
Yante Maten, Georgia
Eric Mika, BYU
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Hyperextended elbow could sideline Kentucky’s Ulis Monday night

Tyler Ulis
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In the midst of No. 1 Kentucky’s comfortable win over USF on Friday, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis went down with a hyperextended right elbow. Kentucky does have two other players capable of running the point in freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, but there’s no denying the importance of Ulis to this team.

The question now is whether or not Ulis will be available when the Wildcats host Illinois State Monday night, and there has yet to be a definitive answer. Ulis didn’t practice Sunday, and should he miss Monday’s game Kentucky loses a player who has provided (among many things) consistency at the point.

“And without Tyler now, you have to understand the last six minutes of that half and what we did the first five or six minutes of that second half, that was without Tyler. We were really good,” Calipari said Sunday. “It’s just they couldn’t sustain it. That’s what Tyler does. Tyler just keeps coming and he does not stop and he’s not going to make mistakes to let another team get back in the game. That’s the difference. That’s the experience.”

The absence of Ulis would give Murray and Briscoe more time with the ball in their hands running the point, and they’d have to do so against an Illinois State team that gave No. 2 Maryland all it wanted in Cancun earlier this week.

While Friday’s game was well in hand when Ulis was injured, the Wildcats and Bulls played to a stalemate in the final 20 minutes. Doing so against an Illinois State team expected to be a factor in the Missouri Valley Conference would be dangerous.

Following Monday’s game, Kentucky makes the trip out west to take on UCLA Thursday night.

Kentucky’s Briscoe shows off body transformation

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Kentucky lost Devin Booker and the Harrison twins to the NBA Draft, but has once again reloaded on the perimeter with Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe joining sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis.

Briscoe, rated No. 10 overall in the Class of 2015 by Rivals, took to Twitter on Friday night to show off the transformation to his body since arriving in Lexington. The Kentucky freshman guard included shoutout to strength coach, Rob Harris, in his tweet.

Briscoe didn’t list his current weight, but a tweet posted on Aug. 4 stated he was 205 pounds. The 6-foot-3 committed to Kentucky as one of the best playmakers in in the Class of 2015.

This is another promising sign for a Kentucky that has to replace the production of seven players who bolted for the NBA. Murray, a late addition to the class, shined in July during the Pan-Am Games, including a 22-point and six-assist performance against the United States in the semifinals.

The Wildcats begin the 2015-16 season on Nov. 13 against Albany.

Concussion rules out Isaiah Briscoe for FIBA U19 World Championships

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Thursday night it was reported that Kentucky signee Isaiah Briscoe suffered a head injury, thus putting his status for the United States U19 team’s trip to Crete for the FIBA U19 World Championships into doubt. Friday morning USA Basketball announced that Briscoe will not be making the trip as a result of that injury.

Briscoe will be replaced on the roster by Virginia Tech rising sophomore guard Justin Bibbs, who was one of the final four players cut from the squad Monday evening.

“I feel very bad for Isaiah. He had a tremendous attitude and was one of our overall best players and one of our leaders of the team,” U19 and Arizona head coach Sean Miller said in the release.  “It is very, very unfortunate to see him get injured in what was really a two-on-two drill. But the good news is I know he’ll recover and be fine; the bad news is he won’t be able to play on our team.”

The 6-foot-5 Bibbs averaged 11.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in his debut season at Virginia Tech, ranking second on the team in scoring. With Briscoe out of the rotation, the United States can call upon Villanova signee Jalen Brunson and Oklahoma State signee Jawun Evans at the point.