I think we have all come to grips now with the reality that Kentucky is an NIT team. What I don’t think people fully appreciate is just how good the NIT field is this year, but you will.
So you think the Colonials of Robert Morris are an eight seed, and therefore a weak team. They are a small team with a 3,000 seat gym (arranged to handle 3,500 tonight), and UK’s just going to walk up there, play a pro-forma game, and walk out with the W. If you’ve been thinking that, let me disabuse you of that notion right now.
Statistically, Robert Morris is better than 13 seed Montana, 15 seed Albany (and we know what 15 seeds are capable of from last year), and every one of the 16 seeds and play-ins. This is a team who would have been no worse than a 15 seed if they had made it to the tournament, and probably would have been closer to a 14. So don’t think of them as equivalent to playing and NCAA 16 seed, they are much better than that.
The Colonials also have the advantage of not just playing close to home, but at home in a Rocky vs. Apollo Creed type of affair that will have their team extremely motivated and their fans hanging from the rafters of their tiny gym. Make no mistake, Kentucky is walking into one of the toughest fights of their season, and this one is win or go home.
How Robert Morris plays
The Colonials are a hybrid between Vanderbilt and Arkansas, statistically, and if that doesn’t make you cringe, you haven’t been paying attention. In conference play, the Colonials shot the 3-pointer at 41%, and forced 25% of the opposition’s possessions into turnovers. Granted, they play against less talented players in the Northeast Conference than we do in the SEC, but these stats are mostly adjusted for competition.
Offensively, the Colonials are fond of running guards down into the post, then freeing them up with down screens to pop out and shoot three point shots. Robert Morris gets a whopping 37% of their scoring from beyond the arc, and 40%+ of their shots are threes.
Robert Morris does not run a lot of high screens unless the clock is getting low, and then they will do it to try to get into the paint and free up a wing shooter, of which they have very many. Three Colonials shoot better than 40% from the arc; sophomore forward Lucky Jones, junior guard Karvel Anderson, and junior guard Coron Williams. Of the three, Anderson and Williams are the most prolific.
The Colonials will also try to score inside, but they are significantly undersized with their tallest player being 6’8" junior Mike McFadden. Everyone else on the team is 6’6" or under.
Defensively, the Colonials prefer a tight man-to-man and they like to play in the passing lanes. Good ballhandling is critical against them, because they are small, quick, and experienced.
Of course, their lack of size makes it problematic to play a lot of man-to-man against Kentucky, so you’ll see them go to a 2-3 zone quite often to try to force Kentucky’s guards to drive into traffic, and facilitate double-teams. UK is going to get a lot of open three-point shots, because Robert Morris’ lack of size everywhere will be a problem.
Robert Morris is athletic, but only conventionally so. There are no NBA-quality athletes on this team, but they rotate well on defense and talk to each other a lot. They are a very solid defensive team, and you can’t telegraph or make soft passes against them. Their zone is very soft, however, not aggressive like Louisville’s and they don’t match up out of it.
Robert Morris is just so-so in transition defense, and likes to play fast. If UK can get them into the open floor, it would be a big advantage.
Robert Morris’ starting lineup is 6’8" Mike McFadden at one forward, 6’5" Lucky Jones on the wing, and 6’6" Russell Johnson at the other. The point guard is 6’0" Velton Jones, and the off guard 6’2" Coron Williams.
McFadden vs. Willie Cauley-Stein
This is a tough one for the Colonials. McFadden is only 220#, and WCS is much taller, longer, heavier and just as athletic. Advantage: Kentucky
Johnson vs. Alex Poythress
Again, this is a huge size mismatch. Even though Johnson is only one inch shorter than Poythress, he is a much smaller man at only 180#, to say nothing of Poythress’ superior strength and skill. Johnson is a better offensive player, but overall, this favors Poythress. Advantage: Kentucky
Lucky Jones vs. Archie Goodwin
Jones is a dangerous offensive player both off the bounce and behind the arc. He can get his own shot, and shoots it well both from inside and outside the arc. He is not a prodigious scorer, but he’s capable of big games. Very good at stealing the ball and drawing fouls. He may have trouble guarding Goodwin, but I like him better in this matchup because he can do the one thing Archie can’t – shoot the ball. Advantage: Robert Morris
Velton Jones vs. Ryan Harrow
Jones is small, quick, and can do it all. He isn’t bothered by bigger players and can really pass the ball, dropping 44% of his team’s dimes. He’s also a good 3-point shooter. Ryan Harrow has been playing poorly, and lacks confidence. I like Jones. Advantage: Robert Morris
Coron Williams vs. Julius Mays
This is a great matchup, because Williams is just about a perfect match-up in every way for Mays. If Mays can stay at home and force him to take tough shots, and make his own shot, this will be a game in which he really helps us. Williams is going to score, that’s what he does, but Mays is the kind of player that should give him trouble. I like Mays a little bit more, but I’m going to call this even. Advantage: Push
Karvel Anderson is the guy you have to watch out for off the bench. He’s a deadly 3-point shooting 2-guard, but at only 6’2", Kentucky has the size to match up with him. You can never leave him, though, he just doesn’t miss.
Anthony Meyers-Pate is the other main sub, and he has been hot lately. He’s small, but very quick at only 5’11", and he is one of those little guys who can really hurt you.
Kentucky’s bench will not be disadvantaged against the Colonials. Wiltjer should be getting the ball in the post every time, because nobody on the Robert Morris team is big or athletic enough to stop the post moves he’s developed this year. Also, they may not be ready for his long game, if he can ever find it again.
Jarrod Polson should be right at home against this team. He’s a good fit both size-wise and athletically. Our bench is not a weakness in this contest. Advantage: Push
This team is a tough matchup for Kentucky, but UK has all the advantages they would ever need to win this one, even on the road. UK is bigger everywhere, and that will be a problem for Robert Morris if Kentucky can just execute the offense modestly.
Defensively, it’s another story. The Wildcats have struggled with intensity, and getting caught on screens, which means that the Colonials are going to get open threes. That’s just a fact of life, and they are going to make them. Kentucky must make those shots as difficult as possible and rebound the basketball, because giving Robert Morris extra shots off turnovers and offensive rebounds will definitely kill the ’Cats.
Robert Morris has one other weakness, which unfortunately does not play to Kentucky’s strengths – they like to foul. The Colonials are a deep team who can go as deep as nine players, and when they do, they put teams on the line.
Unfortunately, Kentucky is a loathsome free-throw shooting team, which is why it is so important for UK to get the ball into the post to their best FT shooters, Poythress and Wiltjer. Forcing Goodwin and WCS to take most of the free throws would be Colonials head coach Andrew Toole’s wet dream.
This is a winnable game against a smaller foe, but they are statistically superior to Kentucky in many important ways, and it’s very, very important for UK to get on top and stay there. The Colonials are going to go on runs, and that has broken Kentucky’s confidence before.
Don’t imagine UK cannot lose this game. Trust me they can, and if they don’t play well, they likely will.