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There Is No "Formula" To Beating The Kentucky Wildcats; Teams Must Outplay Them If They Want To Win

There's something about the obsessive search for a "formula" for beating UK that rubs me wrong.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This is an interesting article over at Sports Illustrated talking about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their strategy for beating Kentucky. What we see here, as we have seen many times before, is people looking for an approach, a plan, a strategy that will defeat the Wildcats. I think in doing so they are belittling the most important part of college basketball, or any other athletic endeavor — effort and preparation. Consider:

The relatively undersized Irish knew they could not attack the rim against the Moai statues Kentucky deploys as a frontline for its top-ranked defense. So they decided to take the big men as far away from the rim as possible. No Notre Dame player occupied a spot in the lane. All of them hovered around the three-point line, moving from spot to spot, replacing each other and then circling back, occasionally setting up a side pick-and-roll. The Irish lulled the Wildcats with this drowsy choreography. When someone bolted to the rim on a backdoor cut, he found no one protecting the bucket when he got there.

I understand the attempt to praise Notre Dame, but what this was, at it’s essence, was as much a breakdown of proper fundamental defense as it was good execution by the Notre Dame offense. It does no good at all to defend well for 15 or 20 seconds and then break down and allow an open shot or layup, but that’s what happened repeatedly to Kentucky. Replicating this will be next to impossible, because Notre Dame is one of the few teams with enough shooters to run an offense like that, that forces you to guard so far from the basket.

This is why John Calipari was right when he reiterated his post-game comments about Notre Dame playing well and Kentucky not doing so, comments that got a bunch of negative Twitter and social media reaction:

"They (Turner Sports) asked me a question and I told the truth," he said. "We played Texas A&M and they took us to double overtime, and we were lucky to get to overtime. We went to overtime with Mississippi. We had a tough road game against Florida. LSU had us beat.

"To say that was, by far, the toughest game, I could’ve lied and said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ But what I said after the game was, ‘Notre Dame played great and let’s give them a hand for the great game they played.’"

It’s silly to assert that the Notre Dame game was "tougher" than the one at LSU, for example, because LSU had an even better opportunity to beat Kentucky than Jerian Grant did in the final seconds. Just that isolated fact belies the argument that Notre Dame offered more of a challenge than LSU. You could argue they were just as good, but not better. The overtime games present an even more difficult defense of the premise, because both Ole Miss and Texas A&M had us tied in regulation, and Notre Dame was not successful enough to get that done.

But back to the original "formula" thing. There is no magic formula for beating Kentucky, no set, no scheme, and no system. The only way to do it is to outplay the Wildcats. Sharper execution on both sides of the ball will enable that to be possible, but it has nothing to do with formulas or offenses. The reality is, Notre Dame’s success was as much due to Kentucky’s breakdowns in fundamental plays as anything Notre Dame actually did right. And on the other side of the coin, Notre Dame was unable to stop Kentucky from scoring on nine straight possessions.

This is not to criticize or trivialize what Notre Dame did — in fact, I think the people searching for this argument are doing the Irish a disservice by placing the system or "formula for victory" over the effort they expended and their will to win. In looking for a formula to beat Kentucky, you make the idea that a Kentucky opponent can simply play better basketball look as if it’s impossible, and that, dear friends and neighbors of the Big Blue Nation, is absurd and wrong-headed thinking.

I think it’s about time we praise the Irish for their effort, execution and will to win, and stop crediting some 5-out formula as the reason for their success — it wasn’t. Notre Dame played a dead-even game with Kentucky until the very end, when the Wildcats made plays that won the game. That’s what happened. Notre Dame didn’t outplay Kentucky, they didn’t do anything magical or superhuman. What they did was exactly what they set out to do; give themselves a chance to win. They accomplished that, to be sure.

It just wasn’t enough.