VMI @ UK analysis: The morning comes with a voice of amber

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I woke up this morning and noticed that Armageddon had not showed up, and the Four Horsemen were still sleeping in their respective corners of Hell.  A significant part of me was disappointed, because it means I have to go through this day reading tons of schadenfreude from Kentucky haters about last night's loss.  That's the part of this that is, as a fan (and particularly a UK blogger), just about intolerable.  It makes me want to do something really emotional and destructive, like go on some kind of ethics-challenged rant or start breaking toasters.

But when you are a self-acknowledged adult (and trust me, at my age, adulthood is definitely assumed), you don't do those things.  Right now, embracing the hate doesn't seem to be an option, so we'll have to settle for introspection and analysis.  Not very satisfying, I know, but it is what we have.  In fact, other than abject, volcanic rage, it is pretty much all we have that has any remote relationship with the word "theraputic."

First, I want to enter a disclaimer.  Whenever you bemoan a loss and criticize the play of your team, there comes with that an implicit suggestion that your opponent had less to do with the outcome than you did.  That's unfair -- VMI left their hearts, souls and much of their flesh on the floor of Rupp Arena, and they won this game by being the better team in the context of that contest.  So to any Keydet fans who might read this, please do not take it as disparaging your valiant team and noble victory.  I acknowledge both, wholeheartedly and without any reservations.

So now for the analysis part.  Why did we lose this game? 

The Herald-Leader reports thus:

UK Coach Billy Gillispie dismissed the suggestion that his team got caught up in VMI's style. He unwittingly seconded Holmes' thought.

"They outfought us," he said. "They got all the loose balls and outhustled us."

Does the coach really believe this?  I mean, it is true that the Keydets out-hustled Kentucky, but does he really believe we didn't get caught up in their game plan?  I can't imagine that he does, but this article says so outright.  I have news for coach Gillispie -- if you think that we didn't get caught up in VMI's style, you are mistaken, sir, and I say that with the conviction of a man who knows basketball and is confident that the evidence of his eyes was not a mirage of the uninitiated.

From my pre-game analysis, please note the following statistics:

  • 3-point shooting last year (with the leading scorer in the nation):  32.2%
  • 3 point shooting last night:  45.2%

It doesn't take a Naval nuclear reactor operator to see that if the Keydets shot their normal 3-point percentage, they would have scored four less 3-point baskets, and the result would have been a UK victory.  In fact, even if they shot 35% from 3, UK would have won.  It also goes without saying that if UK had made a reasonable percentage of the 16 three-point shots they took, say 35% or so, UK would have won.  So what it took, in effect, for the Keydets to win, even absent every other factor, was an extraordinary 3-point percentage and an unusually low 3-point percentage by their opponent.

Note in my pre-game analysis that I warned that the Keydets were senior-dominated, exactly like Gardener-Webb last year, and now we have a similar result.  Seniors matter.  We have one senior who never got into the game.  They started four.

So where did the Wildcats go wrong?  To me, this is so profoundly easy and obvious, it really scares me.  VMI did not employ any players inside the paint.  Instead, they essentially played us with five wing players, all of whom could shoot from the perimeter.  When you have that scenario, there are really two ways you can go:

  1. Play similar-sized players of equal quickness;
  2. Play a soft man-to-man defense at the larger positions.

What you cannot do is exactly what Gillispie's charges did -- follow the dribbler instead of trusting your help.  The reason is that the size mismatch on the perimeter is a serious disadvantage for the larger team.  You have to guard every position, and players like Patterson and Stevenson can't face-guard their opponent, and to their credit, they didn't try.  But Kentucky's wing players did, just as they are taught, and as a result got beat off the dribble.  When that happened, the bigger players rotated to help, but that usually resulted in either a kick- out three or ball reversal leading to a three.  That was a failure of execution which I will now explain.

When the offensive player in a scheme like VMI's gets the ball and makes a dribble-drive against a close defender, he is usually going to get past, because there is no interior clutter to force him to change direction or slow down.  That forces help-side rotation, but that help has to come from a long way away to meet the driving offensive player at the basket.  The player who got beat off the dribble has to rotate to cover his help defender's man to prevent a kick-out three.  That didn't happen.  What did happen is that the beaten defender followed his man  to the basket along with the help defender and tried to force a turnover, which resulted in either a kick out to the help defender's now unguarded man, which led to an open three right there, or ball rotation which created an open three, or a foul.

The other thing that can happen when you rotate properly is that the offensive player can pull up for an open jump shot, which seems bad except that the Keydets refused to shoot that shot when they had it.  They were coached to accept only two successful offensive outcomes -- a layup or an open three point shot, with the latter preferred.

Offensively, the Wildcats tried to score too many points in the open floor, which resulted in 25 turnovers.  That number looks ridiculous, but when you look at the number of possessions (92), it works out only to .27 turnovers/possession.  That would be the same as an 18-turnover game last year -- not good, but only 2 above our average for the season, and this is way early in the season.  Make no mistake, the turnovers hurt, but UK should have been able to overcome that statistic in isolation.

But the biggest thing Kentucky did by running up and down and failing to force VMI to defend the half-court is to take one of our most potent offensive weapons, Patrick Patterson, completely out of the basketball game.  Patterson had a ridiculously low 4 field goal attempts.  Folks, when you have a workhorse like him playing against a team who has no hope whatever of defending him effectively, getting him only 4 shots (of which he made 3) is basketball malpractice.  It is unacceptable to the point of incompetence.

In the end, there is nothing badly broken with Kentucky.  This debacle was either:

  1. A complete failure of the coaching staff to prepare the team, which is a coaching failure, or;
  2. A complete rejection of the coaching plan by the players along with flawed execution, which is a failure of coaching leadership.

Either way, this one is on the coaches.  They'd better do much better against the Tarheels, or I am going to be very displeased, and expect to have a lot of company.

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