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:

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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. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.