It is with hurting head that I sit down this morning to write about the events of last night’s barn-burner between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Kentucky Wildcats. A small excess of alcohol and an overdose of adrenaline will often produce that effect. Nothing a few ibuprofen won’t cure, though.
Last night’s events were a poor man’s version of the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game, a sort of basketball Irish stand-down where both teams hurled haymakers until only one was left standing. It was different, but it had the same "can you top that?" feel to it down the stretch with both teams making huge shots and playing right to their relative strengths. In the end, Kentucky got a huge stop that produced the opportunity to control the last 33.1 seconds, and they executed with relentless precision, earning two free throws that provided the final margin, and on the ensuing possession, denied Jerian Grant the opportunity to be the 2015 version of Christian Laettner.
Notre Dame played a fantastic game that Kentucky was seemingly unprepared for. Instead of bombing away from three, the Irish ran side pick and rolls that Kentucky simply could not stop. I cannot understand how this wasn’t emphasized more in the preparation for this game, but I am confident that the coaching staff will immediately set to correct this deficiency lest the Wisconsin Badgers give the Wildcats the same treatment in the national semifinals next weekend.
I want to take a moment here to congratulate the Irish and their fans for a terrific basketball game. It was an instant classic, and deserves to be. They played brilliant basketball, and against a lesser team, there is little doubt they would be moving on to the Final Four. Kentucky was barely adequate to the task of dismissing them from this tournament. Kudos for a great season.
I have to be honest and say that Kentucky did not play very well at all defensively. I’m about 3/4 of the way through a rewatch of the game, and already I have seen double-digit breakdowns by the Wildcats on defense. We have to credit the Irish for some of that, because sharp execution will often produce breakdowns. But too much of it was silly stuff like triple-teaming or double-teaming drivers on the pick and roll, leaving a wide-open roll to the basket, or losing sight of their man for a back cut. Many of the mistakes were made by the freshmen, which is understandable, but they have to do better against Wisconsin.
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Notre Dame box
It’s really hard to complain about a 1.19 points/possession offensive efficiency. You should lose very few games at that level of efficiency, but this was nearly one of them.
Kentucky allowed Notre Dame to shoot 50% eFG against them. That’s no good at all. Gotta credit that efficient Irish offense for some of it, but Kentucky made it way too easy for them way too often.
19% turnovers against a non-pressing team like Notre Dame just stinks. The last thing you want is to give efficient offenses extra possessions. Calipari may not mind some turnovers, but you have to adjust your strategy to your opponent, and against Notre Dame, valuing possessions is more important than playing in a way that might produce turnovers.
Offensive rebounding was good at 40%, but Kentucky gave up 41% OR’s to a very rebounding-challenged team. That makes no sense to me. Some of them were on challenges, but if you are going to block shots, you’d better block them, because every time Kentucky missed, the result was an Auguste dunk. Kentucky has to do a better job of helping out when the weak side shot-blocker leaves their man.
I thought Kentucky lacked effort and energy, particularly in the first half. Too much standing around when the ball went up.
Hard to complain about 50% from the arc, but only 4 shots seems too few. Still, the way UK was scoring in the post, the decision to take the two points every time down was probably the best way to go.
Kentucky shot 70% from the line, which is acceptable, but we sure could’ve used better in this game.
Can’t complain about 9 blocks (21%), but Kentucky turned the ball over on at least a couple of them giving Notre Dame easy baskets.
Kentucky’s pick and roll defense stank like bloated carrion. I hope Calipari gets that fixed before we meed the Badgers.
Only 32% assists in this game. A lot of that was due to dumping the ball in to the post, I’m not really concerned at all about this number the way the game was played.
I would’ve liked to see Calipari put some pressure on the Irish in the back court. We did it only maybe once. I think a diamond press in that game might have produced a turnover or two.
Karl-Anthony Towns was in beast mode, and gets the game ball. He dominated the smaller Irish inside, and for whatever reason, the Irish never really tried to double-team the post. If I have a criticism, it would be with only five rebounds, but without his ridiculous 10-13 shooting, UK doesn’t win this game.
Willie Cauley-Stein had kind of a quiet game when he needed it to speak more loudly. He did a great job defensively as always, but he managed only 4 rebounds, and you need a guy his size to get more than that.
Andrew Harrison only took 2 shots and didn’t make any of them, but he made 7-8 free throws including the two that gave Kentucky the lead for good. I thought he played well, though, he attacked the rim and got to the line, getting fouls on the Irish and scoring very efficiently from the line.
Aaron Harrison did not shoot it well at all, but he made the biggest shot of the game. He played just okay defensively, and he didn’t really look comfortable the entire game. That finger should be way better by next Saturday.
Trey Lyles shot the ball pretty poorly for him. When you look at these stats and see some of the shooting, you realize just how not-great Kentucky played. Lyles missed every one of his jumpers, but he did make some post-ups and tip-ins. He also rebounded well, getting 5. But he did have a team-high 5 turnovers, and that really hurt.
Devin Booker played a really good offensive game, but he was terrible on defense. He got beaten by his man repeatedly off the bounce, he gave up layups losing sight of his man, he just did a really freshman job of defending. Notre Dame, to their credit, did a fine job of exploiting the young guys’ inexperience, and that gives me some concerns going forward. Wisconsin will theoretically be able to do that as well.
Tyler Ulis also played a very freshman game, taking some bad shots and making some poor decisions. He made a huge three that helped bring Kentucky back after the Irish went up six, and even though it felt like the game was a little too big for him, he kept after it.
Dakari Johnson saw only 8 minutes, but he made three blocks, an amazing number. He didn’t score and he didn’t rebound particularly well, and he’s still getting lost on defense, but he worked hard.
I thought Lee should’ve seen more time, and listening to Calipari later, I think the coach agrees with me. Lee played good basketball, made a great dunk put-back and got a nice defensive rebound. It was a wildly efficient 2 minutes he played.
Wrapping it up
This was a game where the Wildcats definitely did not bring their best game, and although their offensive efficiency doesn’t look bad, that was a conscious decision by Mike Brey to live with Karl-Anthony Towns one-on-one in the post. Despite Towns’ tremendous efficiency, it almost worked out for the Irish. Kentucky turned the ball over way too much to a non-pressure team, surrendered way too many offensive rebounds to a poor rebounding team, and just generally did not play the kind of basketball they have been playing recently.
Every great team has a game like this in the tournament, a game that they nearly lose and yet find a way to win. What we want to hope now is that this has demonstrated to the UK players the level to which they must rise to win it