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.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

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.