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Beauty is in they eye of the victor

I have read numerous articles lately about how the Kentucky Wildcats are "winning ugly."  What does a beautiful win look like?  What is it that makes a game "ugly" to the eye, rather than pretty?  I think this is a question that must somehow be answered, or at least considered.

I think most Kentucky fans know what "beautiful basketball" looks like.  It was very much embodied by the 1996 championship team, the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 teams, where the offensive flow was very smooth, interior passing excellent, a lot of assists, few turnovers and most of all, lots and lots of victories.  But "ugly" teams have been successful, too.  By comparison to the aforementioned, the 1997-98 championship team played "ugly" basketball, but produced beautiful results.  During the debates of recent years, there have been many who have equated ugly basketball with a slow, grind-it-out style.  I am consistently asked questions by people wondering if the style of basketball we see this year will be what we see every year under Gillispie.  Style.  Beauty.  Ugly.  Hmmm.

I think what we are seeing out of Kentucky is beautiful half-court defense, below-average transition defense, and some "ugly" offense.  The reason our offense is so ugly-looking right now is that we are pretty much playing 3 on 5.  A maximum of three Wildcats are true threats to score -- Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Patrick Patterson.  That makes offense much more difficult under the best conditions, and the truth of the matter is, we simply don't have enough people capable of scoring right now to substitute effectively.  What this means, and what we have all seen, is that our three main scorers are playing pretty much iron man basketball, well over 35 minutes per game, and sometimes even more.  For example, in our latest effort against Arkansas, the Big Three had 39, 35 and 40 minutes respectively.

The result of all these minutes by three players is that the game tempo simply must be kept to a moderate level, or the players will run out of energy.  It means that if they are to exert themselves fully on defense every possession, they must find a way to get some rest, particularly the larger guys.  Larger men, by virtue of their greater muscle mass, burn more energy moving up and down the floor than smaller men.  That means that running with only one quality big man just really cannot be done effectively.  So Kentucky controls the pace and tries to force as many empty possessions as possible, while keeping their own offensive efficiency relatively high.  Sometimes, like yesterday, our offense is not so efficient, but we find other ways to win.  But one thing is a constant -- tough defense.

As we have seen so often this year, fewer and fewer teams in modern college basketball are comfortable playing at the pace Kentucky forces.  Today's college players have grown up in an AAU system which values scoring, running and jumping over a fundamental understanding of how basketball works and how the half-court should be defended.  As teams get closer to the end of the season or play in big games, you rarely see the 80 and 90 point per team games. The games tend to be won with tough defensive effort, rebounding and free throw shooting.  It's very much the same way in the NBA, where high-scoring, free-flowing offensive teams rarely find their way deep into the post season.  Want an example?  Just look at the Memphis-Tennessee game last night, which had a Final Four quality, and was played at a pace of 67, significantly below the two teams' average pace (71 and 73 respectively).

College basketball has changed significantly since the heady days of Rick Pitino's days on the sideline at UK.  The last two years, a Florida team won more on the strength of their excellent half-court defense than their offense, which was also very efficient and played at a high level.  Since 2004, only one team has won with a pace over 70  possessions/40 minutes, and that was the 2005 North Carolina team, a team filled with lottery picks.  In fact, if we look at the last four years, the final four teams in the tournament averaged a pace of 67 possessions/40 minutes, and the winners have averaged just under 70.  The UCLA teams that have shown up in the final four the last two years have played at a pace of 63 and 64 respectively, just about what UK is playing at now.  Georgetown, by comparison, averaged only 60.

The point of all this is that many people equate beauty with speed in basketball.  It isn't necessarily so.  When Billy Gillispie said that he was going to play the game according to the personnel he had, this is partially what he means.  But even if we wind up with athletes like Memphis or North Carolina currently has, I don't think you can expect to find Kentucky in the 70+ range.  Gillispie is coaching not only stern defense, but an offense that values the good shot.  This Kentucky team doesn't always execute well offensively, but they have one constant -- working to get good looks at the basket.  I predict that neither quality, tough defense nor working for a good shot, will change no matter what our makeup.