Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, last night was quite a night. Not only did the Kentucky Wildcats defeat the Kansas Jayhawks, they did so in a way that astonished all of college basketball, and I do mean all. Even blueblood opponents like Duke were aghast, and even Louisville Cardinal fans offered grudging praise for the demonstration of talent and basketball prowess. It was, in a word, gobsmacking. People aren’t quite over it yet, and are reduced to reassuring us that UK couldn’t beat an NBA team. Fortunately, we don’t have any NBA teams on our schedule, so I guess I can live with that.
I want to say a word about Kansas in the hopes that it will be taken the right way. I have nothing but respect for their program. I respected them when they beat us, I respected them when we played for the NCAA Tournament championship in 2012, and I still have great respect for both the coach and the fan base even after the events of last evening. We’ve been on the short end of a few of these (remember Vanderbilt back in 2008 and the Tennessee Volunteers in 2013?) Kansas did not display its potential last night, and Kentucky got into their heads a bit. I have no doubt a rematch later in the season would be far more competitive. So to Jayhawk fans, I wish you well going forward, this was not a typical UK-KU matchup. Anomalies happen.
What can I say about Kentucky? Well, quite a lot, actually, but not all just here. We’ll go through the box score, the Four Factors, and all that, but last night Kentucky showed exactly what they showed in the Big Blue Bahamas, but a little bit better. When this team is focused on defense, keeps their feet after head fakes, and trusts their help near the basket, they are formidable indeed. They did all that last night, and managed to score enough to make the game look uncompetitive, which honestly, it was.
Courtesy of Kenpom.com
Courtesy of Kenpom.com
Believe it or not, Kansas and UK were almost even on the offensive glass. I never would’ve thought that watching the game. Overall, Kansas rebounded well enough to win, but that wasn’t why they lost.
UK’s turnover percentage was less than 10% (9.78%) It’s really hard to beat somebody who takes that kind of care of the ball even if Kentucky didn’t have such an impenetrable defense.
Kansas got to the line better than UK, but not by much. 45% is really good no matter who is doing it.
When you hold a team to 22% eFG, you have crushed them. There’s no way to win a game from there, no matter what else you do and how well you do it.
Kentucky was more efficient than a lot of people gave them credit for. 1.18 points per possession (efficiency of 118 points/100 possessions) is pretty darn good. It’s not world-beating efficiency, but it will win you most games. Last year, Kentucky won a lot of games less efficient than that.
My point here is that you don’t need to listen to the talking heads telling you that UK won because of its defense alone. That’s just false. They also offended well, which is why the margin was so large.
Kentucky assisted on 60% of made shots, and Kansas less than half of that. You can win without a lot of assists, but what it does is illustrate Kentucky was sharing the ball willingly.
Karl-Anthony Towns — KAT was, to put it simply, the best player in the game. He scored, he had eight rebounds and got credit for four blocks (no telling how many shots he altered), and was one point shy of a double-double. On top of that, Towns had three assists and zero turnovers. Game ball.
Aaron Harrison — Aaron had a good game, he made 2 of 3 from 3. He didn’t shoot well inside the arc though.
Willie Cauley-Stein — Another solid game from WCS. Three more points and it would have been a double-double. Willie also did some nice things that won’t show up in the stat sheet, like hit a face-up jumper.
Alex Poythress — Alex did not make a single shot, except from the line. He had two amazing athletic blocks, though, and was a terror on defense.
Andrew Harrison — Andrew had a great game that isn’t properly reflected in the stats. He played his best defensive game of his time at Kentucky, and had 4 assists and two turnovers. He also made threes.
Dakari Johnson — Johnson had a quality game with 11 points. He only missed one shot and had an assist. What he did not have was enough rebounds — he only managed three.
Trey Lyles — This young guy just gets better every game. He didn’t score much, but he played well, had a block and four rebounds, and didn’t turn the ball over.
Devin Booker — Booker has been cold all year from three, and this game was no exception — 1-6 from the arc and 1-3 from 2-point range. But he defended really, really well, he had 3 assists and just brought energy. The shooting will come around.
Marcus Lee — You can almost expect the same thing every game out of Marcus — shot intimidation, some put-backs and rebounds. Last night he had seven rebounds, four blocks and an assist. The only thing he did not do well was shoot free throws — he was 0-4. Another thing he proved he could do was guard smaller players on the perimeter, a la WCS.
Tyler Ulis — Tyler Ulis’ line doesn’t look particularly good, but he defended very well, and was almost never out of position. Uncharacteristically, he had zero assists and two turnovers, but he played better than his line indicates.
Derek Willis — Willis had some nice minutes, hit and open three and made his only free throw, as well as adding a steal.
Dominique Hawkins — Dominique came in and did his usual thing, which is defend and rebound. He didn’t score.
EJ Floreal, Sam Malone, Tod Lanter, and Brian Long all played the last minute and a half. The third platoon.
Tying it all up
This was Kentucky’s premiere act of 2014-15, and it was not only a sellout, but the reviews were glowing and even a little in awe. The Wildcats put forth an intense defensive effort, but were no slouches offensively either, contra some of the analysis. When you’re knocking on the door of 1.2 points per possession, you’re playing good offensive basketball.
The problem is, and has been all season, that UK doesn’t look as smooth or polished as, say, Duke does on the offensive end. The cuts aren’t as timely and the passes not quite as crisp. Part of the reason is that this Kentucky team has focused mostly on defense in the early going, as with all John Calipari teams. The offense is always the last thing he installs, and it takes a while for that to ingrain itself into the team concept. UK will look smoother on offense, although we might not see them clicking on all cylinders offensively until the conference season starts after Camp Cal.
But right now, the defense is way, way more than enough when Kentucky plays it like they did last night. The ‘Cats are stupefyingly huge front to back, and there is simply no way to practice against that kind of size unless you possess it. Also, the athleticism that goes with that size is hard to grasp. Watching 6‘10’‘ 235# Trey Lyles move like a small forward is just really hard to deal with. Marcus Lee and Willie Cauley-Stein can both guard 6‘1" players on the perimeter with their unusual quickness, and you can’t teach 6‘10"+ with 35-inch verticals.
This was the most dominant performance by a Kentucky team in over ten years, and by far the most dominant performance against a quality foe in the John Calipari era. Let’s not hype this too much — Kentucky has shown that if they try to cruise, they are vulnerable. Buffalo demonstrated that you can’t take games or even halves off against Division I basketball teams.
But a focused and intense Kentucky might be unbeatable. The problem is, they simply aren’t going to be focused and intense every game — we’ve seen that. They are going to let this go to their heads and they are going to have some letdown games. How well they do depends on keeping those letdown games to a minimum.
Finally, a point on the platoon system. Dick Vitale has been very vocal against the platoon system and and insisted that it’s not the right way to play:
Dick Vitale of ESPN tweeted that Coach Cal will drop the platoon "deal" and stop trying to make players "happy" in order to make a run at the national championship.
The point everyone is missing is that Calipari isn’t doing the platoon system with the goal of a title – though he would take that too. He’s said all along that he’s doing it so that all of his players "eat." He’s said a number of times that he’s got 10-12 guys who deserve to play, so he’s going to do everything he can to make it work and get them on the floor.
That’s exactly right. Make no mistake, a championship for Calipari would be nice, but it’s more important to him that these young men get to play, and based on the results of last night, you’d have to say those two objectives are anything but mutually exclusive, or even cross-purposes. I am all in on the platoon system, have been since the beginning, and if we lose a game or three, so be it.
But based on the results of last night, I’d say the platoon deniers are walking around with egg on their faces. Bill Self doesn’t have anything negative to say about Kentucky’s rotation. Just ask him.