North Carolina works hard to deny the first pass over the time line. UK needs to figure out a way to make that pass easier.
Earlier this week, I examined the defensive and offensive strategy that the North Carolina Tar Heels utilize, and how Kentucky needs to execute to defeat them. Now, we are going to pore over some game stats and replays to create a bit of a scouting report on the Tar Heels.
By looking at Ken Pomeroy's numbers (I subscribe so you don't have to), we see a few interesting but really statistically meaningless trends emerging, such as a very slight correlation between pace and offensive efficiency for the Tar Heels. If we assume just for the sake of having something to talk about that this is actually meaningful, the strategy might be to be a bit more deliberate on offense in order to improve our odds of winning.
Looking at Kentucky's Kentucky's tendencies, the game last night was played at the highest pace of any UK game this year (79 possessions), and was still slower than UNC's fastest game by 9 full possessions. There is no doubt who prefers a faster pace here. The good news for Kentucky is that the Wildcats are completely pace-agnostic -- the 'Cats can grind it out a la Penn St., or run with the thoroughbreds a la St. John's. It just doesn't matter to Kentucky what the pace of the game is.
With that in mind, you might see Calipari play some possession basketball in the first half just to see how Carolina reacts. UK has demonstrated on more than one occasion that they are very comfortable running the offense in the half court, especially against man defense like Kentucky saw against Kansas. While North Carolina looks like a better matchup for UK on paper because of their interior size, the reality is that either John Henson or Tyler Zeller is going to have to come out on the floor and guard either Terrence Jones or Anthony Davis. That is by far the biggest matchup problem for either team because of Jones' and Davis' ability to put the ball on the floor.
My feeling is that Cal will want to put Jones on Zeller defensively for the simple reason that Davis is just too light to guard him in the post and will get pushed under the basket. Zeller is mature and a lot stronger than people think, as well as being an underrated athlete at the center position. Jones is the only player on UK's roster capable of defending him, but he can't do it without help.
Which means -- double teams from the top. North Carolina is going to want to try to force the wing forward to double rather than the 2 guard, which is the guy the 'Cats will want helping. Lamb/Miller will be covering Dexter Strickland or Kendall Marshall, neither of whom is a deadly 3-point shooter normally, but Harrison Barnes is a good perimeter shooter and can shoot over UK if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Darius Miller are forced to drop down for the double-team.
Miller at the 2-guard could be a huge advantage for the Wildcats and force UNC to jack up a lot of threes, and with PJ Hairston out, that makes the double-team a much more attractive option than if he were available. Kentucky can definitely live with Strickland or Marshall, and even Reggie Bullock taking the shot off a double-team. Remember that half-court offense is not the Tar Heel's strength, and they will tend to rush it if UK defends them well for the first 15 seconds of the shot clock.
I expect that Anthony Davis will be the guy on Henson, and they match up perfectly in every respect. Henson is more experienced, but he is not as talented or versatile as Davis, and is at a quickness disadvantage due to his really long legs and short torso. It will be interesting to see if Henson can keep up with Davis off the bounce or off cuts. If he can, that's a big plus for the Heels.
Another fascinating question is who Kidd-Gilchrist will guard. With Lamb in the game, you have to figure it will be Barnes, but when Miller is in, you could see him move to Marshall to try to disrupt the Tar Heels' offensive initiation. Marshall is the only person that initiates offense for the Heels except for short relief stretches, and if MKG can make him struggle to do that, we'll see a lot of early perimeter shots coming from UNC, and that's what UK wants.
Defensively, the most important thing for Kentucky to do is get back in transition. That creates a major quandary for UK -- Offensive rebounding is critical to their success, but if they don't get at least one of their big people back, UNC is going to dunk on the Wildcats' heads with their blistering fast break. How Calipari handles the Carolina break will be the single major decision facing him and his braintrust.
Then there is Barnes, who has been feasting on smaller, weaker 3-men all year near the paint and especially in transition. UK has to find a way to keep the ball out of his hands on the break, and force him to go long stretches without a shot. Barnes is a guy who has a kind of mental minimum when it comes to shot attempts, and if UK can hold him without an FGA for a while, Barnes will start trying to create his own shot off the bounce, and while he can do that, he's not as effective as when he lets the offense come to him.
Finally, there is turnover %. Statistically, turnovers appear to hurt Kentucky more than they do North Carolina when it comes to offensive efficiency, so it is absolutely critical that Marquis Teague continues to have low turnover numbers. Because UNC attempts to deny the first pass over half court and will sometimes trap out of that denial, it is particularly important that UK recognize that pressure is coming and have a relief in place that they can depend on. UNC becomes very vulnerable in early offense when teams foil their pressure on the first pass quickly, and it often leads to a layup or foul. UK really needs to work on their first pass past half-court -- it is a linchpin to a good offensive possession.
That's what I have now. Much more to come.