This one is personal, even though the Lexington Herald-Leader says otherwise. Travis Ford, former Wildcat, EKU coach and Rick Pitino protégé, tries to pull off a little revolution in Rupp Arena Friday night at 7:00 with his University of Massachusetts Minutemen. He is 0-3 against his alma mater, and would like nothing better than to do to Kentucky what he did to Louisville - send them home for Christmas with a spanking.
It has been many years since Kentucky played the Minutemen. As a matter of fact, the last time we played them was in the 1995-96 season when we won the national championship, where as it turns out we played them twice - early in the year (a loss) and later in the final four.
A look at UMass
UMass is a member of the Atlantic 10 conference, which include such teams as Xavier, George Washington, and Dayton among others. We have heard quite a bit about the A-10 this year because Louisville went 1-2 early season against A-10 schools, losing to Dayton and UMass, beating St. Josephs.
As we all know, Rick Pitino is not only Travis Ford's former coach and mentor, but a high-profile UMass alum. He helped Ford get the job at UMass after Travis took Eastern Kentucky to the NCAA tournament two years ago for the first time in a long while.
Now, some may think that Ford is a hot young coach, but his record is not exactly smokin' in D-1 ball -- he is 83-97 up until tomorrow night's game. But don't be fooled by the numbers -- Ford is doing a dynamite job at Massachusetts, and has them off to the best start they have had since 1995-96, when they made the Final Four with NBA star Marcus Camby leading the way.
Ford has rebuilt this team with transfers and a strong freshman class, as well as returning four starters from last year. UMass' star is 6'9" senior Rayshaun Freeman, a genuine double-double threat against high major comp every night. Freeman is averaging 18 ppg/8 rebounds in only 27 minutes per game. Freeman does have a bit of trouble staying out of foul difficulty -- he has had 4 or more fouls in 5 games this year, which is undoubtedly why his points/rebound averages have not been higher. Freeman is a post player who can score with his back to the basket or facing, much like Randolph Morris of Kentucky. In fact, the two are very close in every respect, with the only significant differences being that Freeman averages 2 more points and Morris is in foul trouble less often (who would have thought we would ever say that?).
Stephane Lasme, a 6'8" senior from Gabon, is the second leading scorer on the UMass team, averaging 12pts/10rebs. Lasme is a strong inside player who likes to throw opponents shots back at them, averaging an astonishing 4.2 blocks per game. At 6'8", that is an athlete, folks. He had [gasp!] 11 blocks against St. Francis of NY (who?), and has had more than 5/game on 4 different occasions this year. James Life and Gary Forbes round out the leading scorers for UMass, with Life leading in 3 point shooting (47%). In all, 11 players for UMass average 9 minutes or more per game, so this team has no shortage of players to throw at the 'Cats.
What to look for
UMass' strength is their low post game. Just like Kentucky, they get a lot of production from their big people. Unlike Kentucky, they have two proven low-post threats who can rebound the basketball. Fortunately for Kentucky, UMass is not a proven threat to gather lots of offensive rebounds like Santa Clara was -- only 27% of UMass' rebounds are offensive vs. 36% for Santa Clara. UMass averages a stellar 49% shooting from the field, and it will take all of the newly vaunted UK defense to keep them from hurting us inside.
The problem for UMass would seem to be Morris. As deadly and strong as UMass' inside guns are, they are fouling machines, both averaging well over 3 fouls per game. If Morris is able to get the ball early and often down low, it is likely that one or both of the UMass big men will be serving serious time in the pine classroom taking notes.
Kentucky would seem, on paper, to have a big advantage on the wing. Life is a good shooter, but not in the same class as Joe Crawford or Ramel Bradley as athletes. Syracuse transfer Tiki Mayben is averaging a team-high 5 assists/game, but like Derek Jasper of Kentucky, is not a threat to shoot from outside, averaging only 15% from three. Gary Forbes and Brandon Thomas are the wing forwards, Forbes the slasher and Thomas more of a shooter. As a team, UMass shoots 33.5% from 3, with Kentucky only slightly better at 34.6%. And for once, we are playing a team that averages more turnovers than we do per game, 18 for UMass against 15.5 for UK.
Maybe more than usual, it is important for the Kentucky perimeter players to get the ball into the paint and force the big people to commit. Anything we can do offensively to take advantage of the propensity of UMass' star forwards to pick up fouls will help the cause tremendously.
UMass has a deep bench, and it was said by one sports writer that they substitute like an NHL team. However, they shoot poorly from the line as a team at a weak 60%. It is strange to think of Kentucky having an advantage from the line given recent history, but this year the 'Cats are shooting a very respectable 68.5% from the stripe.
What it all means
UK can win this game if the stick to what they do best -- getting the ball inside to Morris. Freeman and Lasme are susceptible to fouls, and without them in the game, UMass becomes a much less potent team. At the same time, UK must do a better job of defending our backboard, a weakness we have had since Chuck Hayes left, and not revert to the 20+ turnovers that were plaguing us earlier in the year. Make no mistake, this team is more than capable of beating us, and is a definite upgrade in competition from Santa Clara. Although Santa Clara and UMass have similar strengths and weaknesses, UMass is much more athletic and active.
In short, if we stick to our knitting, play our usual stern defense and avoid sloppy play, Kentucky should be able to handle the Minutemen and send Travis Ford home with 0-4 to stuff in his stocking.