For the third straight Friday, the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team (3-1) will hit the hardwood. This Black Friday night, the 'Cats battle the Northeastern Conference's LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds (0-3), the one-time home of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member and coaching icon, Clair Bee (Bee, who first developed the 1-3-1 zone defense, won NIT titles at LIU in 1939 and '41). Kentucky, who comes off a hard fought 81-70 win over Morehead St. on Tuesday night, looks to extend the nation's longest home court winning streak to 55-games as the Wildcats take on a team that last year posted a 25-9 record, and boasts the NEC's 2012-2013 preseason Player of the Year.
Still learning how to play John Calipari basketball -- among other things, knowing when to drive, when to pull-up, and when to dish, rebound with a vengeance, and never stop defending -- the freshman heavy 'Cats, after facing an overly physical Morehead squad, will duel an LIU team that last year was second in the nation in scoring at 81.4 points per game, and through three games this season is averaging 80.7 points per contest (while giving up 88.7 points).
Push-the-pace is what Blackbird's first-year head coach Jack Perri will instruct his team to do against UK, something which should help prepare the 'Cats for the likes of SEC foes Florida, Missouri, and Arkansas, just as the Morehead St. game hopefully inoculated Kentucky against the tenacious, physical defense it will encounter when the 'Cats face-off against arch-rival Louisville in late December.
Speaking of the Eagles, here's a totally free sidebar regarding the Morehead game: Most UK fans seemed to come out of the MSU contest feeling like the 'Cats underperformed. And while, from the 16:30 to 10:00 mark in the first half (when UK was outscored 16-0), Kentucky did not respond well to the Eagles' obvious game-plan to "get up in" the Wildcats defensively, over the final 31 minutes of the game, the 'Cats countered by pummeling Morehead 75-54 with a steady diet of Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin. Offensively, both players performed about as aggressively as one can ask, and both contributed defensively to UK holding MSU to only 38.7 percent second half field goal shooting (12-31).
The one glaring issue the 'Cats continue to have, though, is rebounding, particularly, keeping opponents off the offensive glass -- Tuesday night in the second stanza, the Eagles snagged nine offensive boards on 19 missed shots, an unacceptable 47.3 percent offensive rebounding rate. Nerlens Noel, too often a lonely soul toiling in the low post, has been left to fend-off board crashing opponents while UK's horses are late arriving to the (low) block party. A circumstance which cannot continue.
Taking that into consideration, UK still seemed to eventually respond quite effectively to MSU's physicality, partly evidenced by Kentucky's 56.5 percent second half shooting (13-23), after 45.8 percent accuracy in the first 20 minutes (11-24). UK did, though, go as deep as I can ever remember before making its initial 3-point shot of the game, and timely it was, as Julius Mays successfully eye-balled a trey at the 11:17 mark of the second half, extending the 'Cats lead to 58-50 (Kyle Wiltjer nailed UK's only other trifecta two-and-a-half minutes later, swelling the Wildcat lead to 11).
Did the 'Cats play perfect basketball? In a word, hardly -- Wiltjer has not yet learned that one has to defend all the time, not just after the catch, and someone has to give help when Noel goes for the block (something John Calipari hasn't been shy about noting), offensively, while UK's spacing is good (most of the time), the Wildcat guards in particular don't respond well to screen traps, something Morehead took advantage of Tuesday night.
This team, though, hates to lose. An attribute which should serve as powerful motivation as the 'Cats continue to learn-as-they-go.
Enough about the boys in blue, let's now take a look at tonight's opponent, the ...
LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
Losses: 3 -- 77-74 to Morehead State, 98-94 to Lafayette in OT, and 91-74 to Maryland.
Although winless on the season, LIU returns four major players off of last year's NCAA tournament team (LIU lost to Michigan State 89-67 in the round of 64), the school's first Big Dance appearance since 1997.
Running the show for the Blackbirds is outstanding 6-foot-0 sophomore point guard Jason Brickman (yeah, you read that right), and his nearly nine assists per game (last year Brickman averaged 7.3 dimes per game, fifth in the nation). While Brickman averages nine shots per game (15.0 points per game), he is a pass-first point, who will look to create easy basket for his teammates off the break. When Brickman does opt to shoot, he makes 51.9 percent of his overall attempts (14-27), and a dangerous 55.6 percent of his 3-point shots (10-18).
Brickman will also look to get into the lane, pulling defenders into the paint, as he looks to create space for LIU's high-scoring forward tandem.
Brickman's top target is high-scoring, 6-foot-7 senior forward Jamal Olasewere, who is scoring 22.3 points per game (and a team-high 7.3 rebounds per contest). Averaging nearly 14 free throw attempts per game, Olasewere is unafraid of challenging the timber down low, and when fouled makes 70.7 percent of his charity tries (29-41).
The First Team All-NEC member is not averse to tossing up a 3-point shot, but he has failed to connect on any of his seven trey attempts this season. Inside the arc, Olasewere is making 48.7 percent of his attempts (19-39), as he looks to attack the rim.
Olasewere's twin low post player, 6-foot-7 forward Julian Boyd, is another dangerous offensive player. The preseason NEC Player of the Year, and 2012 finalist for the Lou Henson (mid-major) Player of the Year Award, is also aggressive around the rim and has accurate range out to about 15-feet. Boyd, who averages 18.0 points per game, connects on 59 percent of his 2-point shots, but likes to float out beyond the arc occasionally, where he doesn't experience much success, having missed all five of his trey tries this year.
Boyd is second on the team in rebounding at 7.0 boards per game, but he leads the Blackbirds in offensive rebounds with eight. Kentucky will need to find him, and put a body on him.
Adding depth and rebounding help to the LIU front court are 6-foot-8 sophomore Khalil Murphy (originally signed with the University of San Francisco), who averages 11 minutes per game (and whose job is to rebound), and 6-foot-6 freshman E.J. Reed. In about 15 minutes per contest (sixth most on the team), Reed is averaging 5.3 rebounds (third on the team), as he battles to alleviate LIU's rebounding woes -- the Blackbirds have been out-rebounded by 3.7 boards per contest, and while Long Island hits the offensive glass with gusto, corraling 43.2 percent of its misses, Blackbird opponents are snaring 45 percent of their errant shots and taking full advantage (Maryland netted 17 second chance points in its win over LIU).
Another double-digit scorer for LIU is 5-foot-10 senior guard C.J. Garner. A transfer from South Alabama, Garner puts up 11.0 points per game, and although diminutive, he grabs 4.3 rebounds per contest. Second on the team in minutes played at just over 36 per game, Garner is a glue-guy who plays with great effort.
Brandon Thompson, a 6-foot-1 senior, rounds out Perri's three guard starting lineup, and is an Arizona State transfer who brings long-range capabilities to LIU's roster. He's only made 4-of-18 from distance thus far this season (22.2 percent), but Thompson is capable of flipping that 3-point script, especially if left unattended on the wing or in the corner. Brickman will look for Thompson on the fast break for an open three, so Kentucky would be wise to quickly find him after passing mid-court.
Giving coach Perri a bit of back court depth is 6-foot-2 sophomore guard Gerrell Martin. Martin is averaging 10 minutes per game, and will launch 3-pointers when given space (2-5 on the year from distance).
Kentucky will enjoy a definite size advantage over LIU at nearly every position, but not unlike Morehead State, the Blackbirds will play aggressively as they attempt to offset their length disadvantage with toughness and positioning.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!
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