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On "Swagger," And The Dreadnought That Is The Kentucky Wildcats

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A brief look back at the UCLA game, what really happened, and why it matters.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t really think we have either analyzed, or said enough, about Kentucky’s defenestration of the UCLA Bruins on Saturday. To be sure, there have been many superlatives from the media and others, and no doubt UK is worthy of all of them, but this was actually two complete basketball games in one.

There’s no way to objectively talk about this without some stats, but I promise not to be too stat-heavy here. Statistics tell us cold, hard facts about the result of play, but not very much about the actual game itself in terms of how the teams played. We want to get plenty of both, and then move on to what it means for the Louisville game on Saturday, arguably the most anticipated basketball game of the 2015 season.

First of all, I want to do a quick examination of the first half Kentucky played against UCLA. Here’s how it looked in the form of a Four Factors graph, which will give us a lot to talk about.

UK-UCLA first half ff
The first half, as you can see was dominated by Kentucky, but notice — not every area of the game was. Kentucky actually lost on the offensive glass, although they were competitive, and there were very few free throws involved by either team.

What obviously stands out is the effective field goal percentages, which was almost historically lopsided in Kentucky’s favor. The Wildcats held UCLA to under seven percent from the field. While that’s impressive on it’s own, what was even more impressive was the way Kentucky did it.

It would be tempting to say that UK’s entire defense was as impenetrable as the armor of Smaug, but that really isn’t what happened. What happened was that the interior defense of Kentucky was peerless, and the pressure from Kentucky forced a high number of turnovers from UCLA, which nullified any beneficial effect from their offensive rebounding.

UCLA got a number of open looks from the perimeter, although I hesitate to call them "good" looks because most of them weren’t catch-and-shoot or rhythm jumpers in transition. Kentucky mostly forced UCLA into threes off the bounce in the half court, off passes very early in the possession, or from too far away, which are the three least desirable and least effective ways to shoot threes for a team that wants to run some half-court offense and play inside out.

But more importantly, UK completely shut down UCLA inside the arc. Two of the three makes by UCLA came off of inbounds plays, and one of them came on a tip-in. In the true half-court setting, Kentucky held the Bruins to only a single field goal. It was a tour-de-force of defensive basketball, and UCLA’s front court is by no means unfortunate, though it is not the biggest or the best in college basketball.

What was also notable about this half of basketball was the intensity and focus of the Wildcats on both offense and defense. Kentucky has never been this focused in a game against a dangerous foe. Against North Carolina, they drifted in and out, and intensity was notably so-so. Against Texas Kentucky was fairly intense for most of the game, but the Longhorns size actually bothered Kentucky a little, the only team to pull off that feat all season.

So the upshot is, Kentucky’s first half performance was supernally dominant inside, it was not so much so on the perimeter, although they did a good job in forcing UCLA to get harder looks than they’d want. Still, you’d figure UCLA would make more than they did — they were a mid-30’s 3-point shooting team coming in, and they got up nine looks from out there.

Which brings me to my next point — intimidation. UCLA was intimidated by Kentucky from the opening tip, particularly when it comes to the inside players. When you walk onto the floor against the Wildcats, the size difference is staggering. Only Texas looked like a high Division I team against Kentucky just walking out on the floor with them. UCLA was clearly conscious of the Wildcats’ shot blocking from the moment they stepped on the floor.

You could just see UCLA's confidence swept away in the Big Blue tide.

The first four possessions went like this: 3-point make by Kentucky, missed 2-point jumper by UCLA, missed 3-pointer by Kentucky, steal and a layup by Kentucky, missed 2-point jumper by UCLA, made 2-pointer by UK, then another steal by UK. During that time, Kentucky’s 2-point defense was flawless, every jump shot was challenged, and UK’s defensive pressure had already forced two turnovers before the second minute of the game was complete.

You could just see UCLA’s confidence swept away in the Big Blue tide. They could do nothing against Kentucky’s size, nothing against their skill, and nothing against their intensity. It was the alpha dog cowing the submissive, defeated rival, and UCLA surrendered their manhood and wouldn’t find it again for the remainder of the half.

The value of "swagger"

When people use the word "swagger" in the context of basketball, what they mean is exactly what we saw against UCLA — a confident, focused team that can use it’s success to intimidate a rival from the very start. UCLA is a team still finding itself, and in the awkward position of having a controversial coach that is still searching for his "mojo" in the unforgiving, tiny universe of blueblood programs. UCLA on Saturday was a reflection of that learning process, and it’s contrast with what John Calipari has done at Kentucky.

Kentucky is a team that has an advantage on the entirety of college basketball that very few mention except for Calipari — an advantage forged in the crucible of the Big Blue Bahamas tour. For August basketball, that was incredibly high-level competition against mostly professional basketball players — older, more experienced, and sometimes just plain better. Kentucky became a true team down there because they were exposed from day one to intense competition from high-quality teams, and the swagger we see now from this team is a direct reflection of that success, combined with the success they have enjoyed so far this season.  What's also sometimes not mentioned is the quality of their practice competition is unquestionably the best in all of college basketball, which helps them at game time.

It’s not a long trip from swagger to overconfidence, and the Wildcats must always be wary of that. However, Kentucky is showing no signs of taking their opponents lightly lately, although we have seen them do it a time or two against inferior competition. Naturally, that was exactly the best-case scenario from Coach Cal’s standpoint — being overconfident against markedly inferior teams can get you the coaching points you need without the loss on your record. That’s been the case with UK so far.

The mist lay upon the Chesapeake Bay, and as the sun began to dissolve it, a massive shape hove into view...

So Kentucky comes into the Louisville game full of swagger and confidence. Louisville will doubtless come into the game on Saturday with an unblemished record, but when they step on the floor with the Wildcats, they are going to be facing the reality of Kentucky, which is significantly different even than the hyperbole. If basketball teams were warships, Kentucky would be a dreadnought, a capital ship of the highest order.

I saw a dreadnought once. I was standing on the beach in the Norfolk, Virgina area early one morning after the mid-watch during power range testing on a new construction submarine. The mist lay upon the Chesapeake Bay, and as the sun began to dissolve it, a massive shape hove into view — the USS Missouri, the last and mightiest of the World War II capital ships, a fearsome battleship from a bygone age. It bristled with weapons — guns of such size and power they could hurl projectiles the size of Volkswagens for miles toward a target. I looked at that leviathan and was awed at the sight. Carriers are larger, but they have nothing like the visual impact of an Iowa-class dreadnought.

That is what this Kentucky team must look like to their foes — a team of such size and power that your first thought is, "How can this be?" The depth of the team isn’t even on your mind — that comes later, when you realize that they never seem to tire or get into foul trouble. Such was the plight of UCLA on Saturday, and although the second half was not nearly as impressive as the first for Kentucky, it didn’t need to be; the game had already been decided, probably at first sight.