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Kentucky Basketball: A Sea Change

As you would expect, events are moving very rapidly now as UK assimilates its most recent head coaching hire.  There are reports that G.J. Vilarino will ask out of his LOI and that K.C. Ross-Miller will open his recruitment back up and is no longer committed to the University of Kentucky.

The latter is no real surprise, but Vilarino does surprise me a little based on his earlier comments.  I suppose, though, having a coach tell you that you just don't fit into his system is all anyone needs to hear to see the handwriting on the wall -- players want to play, not get a free education and a great seat to watch others play.  It goes without saying that with Vilarino's change of heart, the way is getting clear for the addition of at least one more player, and possibly as many as two.  But we'll let events unfold instead of speculating wildly.

What I really want to discuss this morning is the sea change that has occurred in Kentucky basketball.  It is pretty clear from all the Sturm und Drang we have seen in the Big Blue Nation over the last four years that the change will be very much for the better, but as with all changes, there will be adjustments, uncomfortable moments, downright disagreement and angst.  The good news is, here is a chance for Kentucky to reinvent itself -- instead of going the way of smack-talking ignorance that we have seen so many times before, the Kentucky fan base has an opportunity to become much more than a distraction to the new Head Men's Basketball Coach -- we can become a driving force that will help him channel and focus his considerable ability on turning this program back into what it was up until about 2005, and perhaps make it even better.

Typically, though, we have seen what Alan Greenspan once referred to as "irrational exuberance" -- over the top commentary, suggestions of unethical and rude behavior, careless rumor-mongering and abuse of coaches past for perceived slights or disappointments.  That frustrates me, because Kentucky now has an opportunity once again to show why our tradition makes us the most storied and one of the most revered college basketball brands in America.  The very fact of Calipari's coming to the Bluegrass is powerful evidence of this.

What we must not do in the full glare of the latest media frenzy is fall into the trap of becoming what the media has tried to convince everyone that we collectively are -- a bunch of semi-literate hillbillies who have nothing better to do than run off qualified coaches and generally behave badly.  Yes, I know that this rep is undeserved.  Yes, I know that the only coach we ran off was Billy Gillispie.  I know all these things, but reality isn't reality -- perception is reality.  We have chance here to demonstrate by our actions the lie of that perception, and I hope we will embrace that opportunity just as thoroughly as we have "embraced the hate."

Another sea change that has been discussed a little but not nearly enough is the change in actual basketball we will be seeing around here.  Much has been written about Calipari's "Memphis Attack Offense," also known as the Dribble-Drive Motion Offense.  What Calipari's offense is, oversimplified to the extreme, is a series of clear-outs for players at various areas of the floor.  We have seen this offense before at UK -- only not as an actual offense.  Instead, it would be a play or strategy to take advantage of a mismatch, normally at the point guard position where you have a major quickness advantage.  Think Wayne Turner vs. Steve Wojciechowski in the 1998 Regional Final game.

Calipari's offense (we'll talk about his defense later in another article) is essentially a four-out, one in offense where the inside player stations himself on the weak-side block.  Everyone else spaces themselves far enough away to essentially create a one-on-one situation with the offense initiator.  The initiator takes the ball on the dribble and attacks the basket, having three options on his drive -- A layup if he defeats his man off the dribble, a skip pass to an open shooter depending on where help comes from, or a dump down to the low post inside man.  I note again that this is a simplified description of the offense that doesn't take into account Calipari's innovations (of which there are many).

The success of this offense, in its most basic form, is predicated on the following:

  • Man-to-man defense -- a zone defense clogs the driving lanes, and makes it hard to run this offense.
  • Good shooters -- the DDMO (known by its inventor, Vance Walberg, as "attack, attack, skip, attack, attack" or AASAA) is designed to produce one of three outcomes:  A layup by the driver, a layup by the post player or an open three pointer.  Medium-range jump shots in this offense are rare.
  • Players who can beat their man off the dribble -- You don't necessarily need to be a great ball handler, because the idea is to open up enough space that help can't come without a penalty.  What you have to be is a good decision-maker -- you need to know when to break off the drive and kick, or when to take it all the way to the hole.  A high basketball IQ is very important, and so is a quick first step.

As I noted above, a zone defense is the antidote to this offense.  Guarding areas allows the defense to help more easily and spread out less, clogging the passing lanes.  But the zone is a percentage defense -- it tries to force you into low-percentage shots farther away from the basket.  Good shooters make the zone unattractive, and attacking the zone in the DDMO is pretty much the same as attacking a zone in any other offense -- try to get the ball into vulnerable spots below the top of the key and force rotation, then quickly move the ball to the open jump shooter.

The reason Calipari's offense requires great players to be effective is because you need to have more than one offensive initiator.  Ideally, you want to be able to initiate the drive that starts the offense from any spot on the perimeter, which makes it very hard for the defense to react.  In reality, you will probably only get three players who can initiate the offense reliably, but that is usually enough.  That's what Calipari means when he said at yesterday's press conference when he suggested that if you are slow footed or unable to defeat your man off the dribble, "... I can't hide you."  This is an offense for an athletic team that can do two things very well -- penetrate and shoot. 

Calipari must be able (and has been able) to recruit at the highest level to run this offense, and he has been because it is so attractive to players that succeed on the AAU scene, because it is so similar to what they wind up running in high school and on the AAU circuit.  The offense is free-flowing, not based on set plays, and showcases the athletic skills of players, and is all about getting up and down the floor and to the rim as fast as possible.  The DDMO is the basketball equivalent of the Spread Option Offense in football (as Ken so perceptively noted the other day) -- it is designed to isolate players in space and allow them to make plays.

The last great sea change we are going to have at Kentucky is a celebrity coach.  Tubby Smith was gentlemanly and a pillar of the community, Billy Gillispie was harsh and insular, but John Calipari will be a media superstar in the mold of Rick Pitino.  The state of Kentucky arguably has two of not only the best coaches in America, but the two most quotable and most approachable.  That cannot be anything but good for the Commonwealth, and could well elevate the UK-Louisville rivalry above, or at least level with, the Duke-UNC rivalry.  That game will become must-see TV for everyone in the country again, and will capture the imagination of both fan bases.  The back story of the two coaches' long affiliation and familiarity (as well as competitive rivalry) will stoke the fires of the annual clash to levels unseen in the Commonwealth since the renewal of the dream game.  I can barely hide my excitement at this prospect, as that game has lost a bit of its luster of late.  No more.

In summary, with the hiring of John Calipari, Kentucky has changed many things, including how we play basketball, how we recruit, and how the Kentucky program will be perceived on a national level.  This is an exciting time, but it is important for all us fans to seize this opportunity to show the country just what it means to be a UK fan -- the pride, the passion -- but also the class, collective quality and élan that makes us the greatest fans in the world.