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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: The View From The Top

Today we have a couple of good articles to dissect and talk about.

We play big boy basketball at Kentucky.
We play big boy basketball at Kentucky.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry for the dearth of posting today, but I’m still trying to dig out of the backlog inevitably generated from my brief vacation last week. I know most of you understand this well, but as I have gotten older, I have generally refused event to answer emails during my time off. Back in "the day," I would bring my fax machine with me on vacation and spend 25% of it working. No longer, I just don’t have enough time left on this planet to work the rest of it away. I am reminded of couplet from Sugarland’s great ode to the worker bee, "Something More":

I could work my life away, but why?

I got things to do before I die.

Okay, now for a few Kentucky — related things. Ricky O’Donnell has a piece today for SB Nation about 10 things learned from last week’s college basketball. Let’s look at a couple of his points.

1. Duke actually defends this year

His justification is lengthy, and fair, in a relative sense. Last year, the Blue Devils were truly abysmal on defense, allowing well over 1 point/possession (1.02 to be exact) for a defense that was comparable to teams like Ole Miss, Wofford, Wake Forest, Cleveland St., South Carolina and Mercer.

Wait, did I say… Mercer? Why yes, I did. The Blue Devils were only three spots ahead of the team that dismissed them from the NCAA Tournament last year. Fitting.

This year, Duke is much better. coming in at 17th (0.9 ppp), which is roughly in the same ballpark as Kentucky last season. I would also point out that their offensive efficiency, while impressive, is largely fueled by very weak teams where they racked up impressive numbers, like the Presbyterian and Fairfield. Still, that’s true of all teams at this point, and they put up a very impressive 1.25 ppp against Michigan State, and 1.3 ppp against Wisconsin.

What’s most impressive about Duke this season, though, is that they are averaging almost 13% steals. That’s extremely strong for a Mike Krzyzewski team, and you have to go back to 2006 to find a comparable steals number from Duke.

4. Tyler Ulis is the key for Kentucky

This one I take issue with. Tyler Ulis is very useful for Kentucky, but hardly the key. The key is actually Andrew Harrison — the Wildcats will rise or fall with him. Ulis has weaknesses that we have yet to see exploited, but will be. He will struggle against aggressive, larger guards. Boston University got him to cough it up two or three times with traps, where his diminutive size make it difficult for him to pass out of them.

Ulis is also a reluctant penetrator, not because he can’t get in there but because he’s been using his ball skills all his life in transition and on the perimeter. It’s useful to have a point guard like that, but dribble penetration remains at a minimum when the white platoon is in. That’s not really a problem yet, but as an example, Ulis has only shot 2 free throws this season, and is used on less than 16% of possessions. A player like that cannot be the key to a team.

Harrison gets you dribble penetration, which gets you good shots and fouls. In the Texas game, at least four times, Harrison was directly responsible for a trip to the line even if it was by another player. We don’t track that stat, i.e. "should’ve been assists but for a foul," but it’s a very important factor, almost as important as assists themselves. You don’t see it on stat sheets, but you see it in the overall efficiency of the team. Harrison is used on 53% of possessions. That’s is the number of a key player.

Don’t get me wrong — Ulis is extremely valuable, even indispensable in some ways. He gives you pressure on defense that Harrison simply cannot approach. He is the steals leader for this team, and that’s remarkable for a freshman of his stature. He has a wonderful pace to his game that makes the offense run smoother (not, as Ricky suggests, faster — it’s faster under Harrison) through him, even when he’s not directly involved. The intangibles of his style are hard to measure in statistics, but they are impactful, and no mistake. Having said all that, he isn’t "the key" unless Andrew gets hurt. Then he surely becomes the key.

5. Texas is a different team with Isaiah Taylor

Yes, that is so. Like Ricky, I’d very much like to see those two teams on a neutral court fully manned.

7. Tyus Jones is the best freshman point guard since John Wall

Again, I’m going to have to disagree but only a little. For my money, Marcus Smart was at least as good, and arguably better than Jones. He wasn’t playing for a team that was nearly as full of good targets as Jones is, which accounts for some of his accolades, and Jones’ outburst against Wisconsin was not his normal game. Let’s see if he can continue to produce against ACC competition before we anoint him. Jones is really good, though.

9. Games are so much better at college campuses

I think this is a matter of taste, and I disagree, but many hold this view. I love larger venues with more neutral crowds. Yes, it’s great to be part of a decibel-meter-breaking home crowd, but if I’m watching a big game between two similar opponents, I love the neutral venue where the partisan mismatch is smaller. Plus, neutral sites often have much more to do before and after the game, as well as better accommodations and easier transportation. As a spectator, I prefer all those things to a loud group of rowdy students. Probably showing my age here.

10. Kentucky has a real shot at entering the tournament undefeated

A shot? Yes, in the sense that every undefeated team has a shot at it right now. I continue to doubt this will happen. Wichita State played a very weak slate last season. Kentucky’s is not comparable, even giving the fact the SEC looks manageable this year. But who knows?

Finally, there was this response to an article John Clay had the other day in the Herald-Leader. In it, Clay noted to North Carolina fans that UK fans would be particularly insufferable this season, and he’s no doubt right about that.

But a certain Andrew Carter, who I think went on Matt Jones’ show this morning (I am unable to listen, so I can’t say) penned a taunting response. I’ve already gone on to long to do a proper fisking, but I’ll make a few points in reply.

First, we’d like to extend our warmest welcome to Louisville to the ACC, and to what is, undoubtedly, the conference with the best collection of basketball programs ever assembled. It has to be difficult for Kentucky – the school in Lexington, that is, and not the red part of the state – to watch from a distance while the party goes on without them but, by now, Wildcats fans should be used to this.

Dear Mr. Carter - As the possessor of eight NCAA Tournament championships, it is not difficult for us at all. Your pitiful little band of programs are all pretenders, at best, to our greatness. Only one of your so-called "collection" has made a Final Four in the last five years if you don’t count Louisville, who wasn’t in your league for any of them.

We appreciate good college basketball around here. Which is why it’s so difficult to appreciate what has happened in Lexington in recent years – because the whole thing seems cheap, taking advantage of a rule that shouldn’t exist. College basketball needs to adopt the baseball rule: Go pro out of high school, but if you’re coming to college, you’re sticking around for a while.

What you’re really saying is that your teams have failed so miserably in the last five years that the NBA wouldn’t draft your players in significant numbers. That sounds like two problems in one to me; insufficient recruiting skill, and inadequate coaching. When a player sticks around, it almost always means he’s not good enough to leave. He either wasn’t developed, or he just lacks next-level talent.

Don’t mock us for recruiting the best and coaching them up. That’s what coaches are supposed to do, or so I’m told — not convince next-level-ready players to return to college.

We still have the best rivalry in the sport, two of the most respected coaches in the game and two programs that both have twice the number of national titles as Kentucky during the past 15 years.

Your newest member, Louisville, doesn’t even agree with this statement. They believe, like us (one of the few things we actually do agree on) that the UK-Louisville rivalry is the best in the sport. You ACC guys should get on the same page with your new acquisition.

As to your ultimate point, Kentucky alone has only 1 fewer NCAA Tournament championship than both your Tobacco Road standard-bearers put together, a minor deficiency we plan to rectify this season. Your continued futility has been amusing to watch.

Yes, it’s lonely up here at the top; but it’s comforting to look down at the rest of you as you struggle, and continually fail, to knock us off. Enjoy your continued occupation of "also ran" territory. I know we will.

I’m done. Quickies will return tomorrow. Treat this as an open thread.