Film Session: Louisville-Kentucky will be a Tale of Two (Different) Defenses

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The center of the college basketball universe will be Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday afternoon, as the No. 1 Wildcats will head west 80 miles on I-64 to visit the Yum! Center and the No. 4 Cardinals in season’s most anticipated matchup.

Kentucky has been absolutely dominant this season, handing beatdowns to Kansas, UCLA and Providence while handling Texas and North Carolina with relative ease. They’ve struggled against teams like Buffalo, Boston U. and Columbia — which likely has more to do with a lack of focus than anything else — but that hasn’t quieted the speculation of a 40-0 season in Lexington.

Part of the reason that talk has gotten so loud in recent weeks is that the SEC is, well, not all that good this season. Florida is not the typical Gator team, Arkansas is up and down, LSU and Ole Miss aren’t as good as we expected, Missouri is rebuilding, Texas A&M and South Carolina are still a year away. Put all that together, and what you get Saturday is, by far, the biggest threat Kentucky will face until the NCAA tournament.

Can the Cardinals actually pull it off?

The answer is going to come down to offensive execution, as this game will pit the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 defenses, according to Kenpom.

What’s interesting there is that while both Louisville and Kentucky have similar philosophies on that end — both defend for 94 feet, and both extend their half court defense — what they run could not possibly be more different.

There is no trickery in what Kentucky is doing. Opponents know exactly what is coming. It’s straight man-to-man, with pressure extending out will beyond the three-point line in an effort to take teams out of their offense. They don’t want to let you move the ball around the perimeter, instead daring opposing guards and wings to try to penetrate one-on-one, forcing them to the baseline side. When that happens, Kentucky’s massive front line is there to help.

The result? The driver is going to have to take a tough, challenged shot over two defenders that are likely much bigger than him, he’s going to have to make a pressured pass back out to the perimeter or he’s going to turn the ball over.

This is more or less the perfect example of what I mean. Tyler Ulis is all over Bryce Alford from the moment he touches the ball in the back court. When Isaac Hamilton gets a touch, he’s forced to the baseline side Devin Booker, where he dribbles straight into Dakari Johnson and forces a shot he has almost no chance of making:

This is where Louisville can run into trouble.

There really is no point guard on the Cardinal roster. Chris Jones is listed as their point guard, and Terry Rozier has a future as a combo-guard down the road, but at this point in their respective careers, both of Louisville’s starting back court players are scorers first and foremost.

Rozier is one of the most improved players in the country and a guy that can take over a game in a moment’s notice. He was terrific against Indiana at the Jimmy V Classic, and he scored 26 points in the second half of Louisville’s win over Western Kentucky after Montrezl Harrell was ejected from the game. Rick Pitino needs him to be able to score, but he also needs him to pick his moments. You cannot force things offensively against Kentucky, it will not work out well for you.

And that’s where Jones comes into the equation. I’ve written about this plenty over the last two weeks, but Jones is a natural chucker that has somehow gotten it into his head that he’s the next Russ Smith. He’s a high-volume, low-percentage shooter that doesn’t always make good decisions with the ball in his hands. That was the way that Russ played early in his career. That also changed by the time Russdiculous turned into an All-American.

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Terry Rozier (Getty Images)

If Jones tries to do too much against this Kentucky defense, he’ll be in for a long, long afternoon.

Frankly, given how limited Louisville can be on the offensive end of the floor, the biggest key for them in my mind is how often they can turned their defense into offense.

And that brings me to what the Cardinals do on the defensive end of the floor.

It’s difficult to define the defense that Rick Pitino runs, but I’ll try. He has a couple of different looks that he’ll use on the press, but the majority of the time he’s running a 2-2-1, full-court press that drops back into something that looks like a 2-3 zone, which is the crux of the defense that Louisville has used since Pitino arrived.

It’s that “zone” that throws teams off. Sometimes it’s a regular 2-3 zone. Sometimes it’s a matchup zone. Sometimes they’ll play zone on one half of the floor and man on the other half. Sometimes they switch from zone into man-to-man halfway through the possession, and vice versa. Sometimes they trap, sometimes they don’t.

The entire premise of this system is to try and confuse the offense, to get them running a man-to-man offense against a zone or to delay their ability to get into a set until there are just 15 seconds left on the shot clock.

Will Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis be able to identify what they need to run offensively? You try it. What defense is Louisville running here? You think it’s zone until you see where Wayne Blackshear starts the possession and where he forces a turnover:

If Kentucky’s guards can, the Wildcats should be in pretty good shape, although some of the nation’s best and most experienced point guards have been flummoxed by the Cardinal defense.

But the more important question might actually be whether Kentucky can beat Louisville’s press.

Louisville’s ‘Black’ press, their 2-2-1 zone press, is the one they use the most often. Louisville’s two guards, usually Rozier and Jones, will essentially be asked to defend Kentucky’s ball-handlers man-to-man, slowing down their offense as they try to make the dribbler uncomfortable, speeding him up and trying to force him into a poor decision. Their ‘White’ press, a 1-2-1-1 trapping press, is more attack-minded and one that Pitino will use as a change of pace, often on dead ball situations in the back court.

Either way, the goal is to force live-ball turnovers and get easy baskets in transition out of it. Not only will that allow Louisville to avoid having to go against Kentucky’s staunch, half court defense, but it will allow the Cardinals to get right back into their press.

Anyway, enough talk of the defenses. Here are a few more notes on the matchup:

KEYS TO VICTORY:

Louisville

  • Getting good shots: It sounds so simple, but avoiding tough, contested and quick shots against Kentucky’s defense is so important, and without a true point guard on the floor, that can be difficult.
  • Guards have to score: Harrell is going to have a tough night with Kentucky’s front line, which makes the play of Louisville’s back court all-the-more important. Rozier has to be a big-time scoring threat and Jones and Blackshear have to make shots.
  • Control the defensive glass: Kentucky’s size and depth up front can be overwhelming, and they are grabbing 45.5 percent of their available misses. Harrell, Chinanu Onuaku and the rest of Louisville’s bigs will need to box out.

Kentucky

  • Don’t turn the ball over: That’s what Louisville needs Kentucky to do. Combine Louisville’s pressure with Kentucky playing their first true road game of the season, and the potential is there for Kentucky’s guards to become overwhelmed.
  • Hit perimeter jumpers: It’s amazing how much better Kentucky is when their threes are going down. They’re going to get some open looks on Saturday. Make them, and Louisville will have a difficult time winning this game.
  • Show up ready to play: I don’t think it’s possible for a Kentucky team to not be ready for this game, but you never know. If they come out like they did against Buffalo or Columbia and let Louisville jump out to an early double-digit lead, it will be tough to come from behind in that environment against Louisville’s defense.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.