In a matter of just a couple days in Boise, Idaho of all places, the Kentucky Wildcats went from attempting to escape this year’s version of the “Region of Death” to the odds-on favorite to win the South Region and head to their fifth Final Four since the 2011-12 season.
How did this happen other than Virginia becoming the one in 135-1 for one-seeds against 16-seeds and Arizona laying a bigger egg than Mother Goose against Buffalo, a team Kentucky just beat by 20 points?
Well, there’s a few factors involved: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been one of the tournament’s most outstanding players already through two games, Wenyen Gabriel has become that “veteran leader” for this bunch, the ‘Cats have rebounded the ball and guarded well on the defensive end for the most part.
But, the emergence of Hamidou Diallo has help bring the ‘Cats back to one of their many homes in the South: “Catlanta”. Diallo has been one of the more frustrating players for Big Blue Nation to watch this season after he enrolled early last year and the hype was endless around him after he decided to forego the 2017 NBA Draft and play (at least one year) at Kentucky.
In the previous 11 games for Kentucky, including the three games in St. Louis when the ‘Cats won the SEC Tournament for the fourth straight year, Diallo’s numbers were like his season: disappointing. He averaged just 5.7 points per game, including two scoreless games against Tennessee, 1.7 rebounds and less than an assist per game. He was shooting less than 34 percent from the field and looked out place defensively more often than not.
During the two wins in the Big Dance, Diallo has stepped into the spotlight and become what many thought he would become when he finally stepped onto the hardwood for Big Blue. He’s scored 30 points on 75 percent shooting (!), including 22 in the Buffalo win, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five (!!) shots.
He was also one of the guys that took those inexperience vs. experienced comments a little more personally for Kentucky after Buffalo strutted into the Round of 32 after demolishing Arizona and it showed.
“I think that was the best game he’s played as a Wildcat,” Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne said, via Kyle Tucker of SEC Country. “There’s a difference in what he did in New York. He played really well, but what he just did in front of the national media, everybody watching, NCAA game, playing to get into the Sweet 16, he showed the world how good he can be and what perseverance is through adversity.”
What made him so effective? Let’s take a look at the footage.
I almost jumped out of my seat watching Diallo make this play early in the game on Saturday. You tend to forget that he has a 7-foot wingspan with a 6-foot-5 frame. This was a great effort play earlier to deny and easy bucket after Will Clark sped past him, and it really set the tone for this game for him personally. Look at his reaction with Chris Webber’s awesome commentary on the play. You can tell that got him going.
This is a staple of Kentucky’s offense when Wenyen Gabriel’s in the game. When you have a guy like him that can step out and shoot the 3 like he’s been shooting it, it opens the floor for the Kentucky athletes to drive and finish at the rack. Diallo’s not short on bounce and when he comes off the Gabriel pindown screen, he attacks the paint hard, Gabriel’s man hesitates because he popped out on the wing and Diallo slams home an easy two points.
This play sums up Diallo having his confidence back. CJ Massinburg is one of Buffalo’s most consistent scorers and on this play, Diallo did a good job of getting around the screen and with Gilgeous-Alexander staying to help just for a quick half-second, Diallo was able to time his jump against the smaller Massinburg and swat his fifth shot of the tournament with relative ease with Sacha Killeya-Jones waiting for a block attempt, too. This is what can happen when you try to score against the athletes Kentucky has.
Simply put, this is just a 6-foot-5 19-year-old being a supremely better athlete than anyone on Buffalo’s roster. When Diallo is engaged like he’s been this past weekend, these types of plays can be common. (Also, he’s been really, really good at timing jumps on both ends, huh?)
I put this in here because it’s a simple play, but such an effective one when run correctly. Gabriel sets yet another good screen for Diallo, which gives him the space to catch the ball deep in the lane with no defensive switch made to score an easy bucket. Good play design, good execution here.
Side note: John Calipari really doesn’t get enough credit for some post-halftime, ATO (after the timeout), BLOB (baseline out of bounds), SLOB (sideline out of bounds) sets his teams run sometimes.
If you’re looking for key plays from this victory, look no further than this shot.
With Buffalo still in the game and the lead trimmed to six, the ‘Cats needed an answer. The first thing to notice here before PJ Washington comes to set a high ball-screen for Gilgeous-Alexander is watch him tell Diallo to fade to the corner. That’s smart recognition from your floor general because he knew Buffalo would “ice” the pick-and-roll look from Kentucky because of how well he had been getting to the basket himself.
Washington comes to set the screen, the hedge comes, Gilgeous-Alexander takes it, makes the quick pass to Diallo in the corner and with Diallo’s man either worried more about the drive or just completely forgetting about him, Diallo catches, sets his feet off the catch and cans a big triple from the left corner to put the ‘Cats back up by nine before the under-12 media timeout. Simple, but effective.
I love this from Diallo. When you put the ball on the deck with no hesitation, utilize your quickness and drive hard to the tin, good things tend to happen. Buffalo trimmed the lead back down to five points, but Diallo quickly made it a seven-point lead again with a drive on the left hand and a strong lefty finish at the rim. No Buffalo player could stay in front of Kentucky’s athletes and Diallo knew it here when Washington kinda-sorta set a screen here that actually did help.
Remember the set that Diallo just scored on with the lefty drive? Here’s the same look with a Washington screen freeing up Diallo for a catch-and-shoot jumper from the top of the key. It’s not an easy shot, but when you’re playing on a high like Diallo was, you tend to hit nylon more often than not.
I'm working on a Hamidou Diallo piece I mentioned earlier and something noticeable from Kentucky's offense around him last night: they ran the same screener action with PJ Washington and it worked for six points with two layups. pic.twitter.com/pO6M7UyrNQ— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 18, 2018
The ‘Cats actually tried to go back to the Gabriel-Diallo screener action that got them their first points of the half earlier, but the pass wasn’t there for Washington this time, so he swung it to Kevin Knox. He looked to the post for Gabriel, but waited for the play to develop. Clark got through the Washington screen, but with his size and length, Diallo had all the space he needed for the jumper.
You’ve seen this play already. A Washington screen in the lane, Diallo drives on the left hand, but the layup was even easier this time. At this point, the ‘Cats were looking for the killshot and Buffalo was making it too easy for them.
I give it a 50, folks. Good night, Irene.
One of my keys for the ‘Cats to make a run was someone stepping up that’s been quiet lately. The preferred option for me personally was Nick Richards, just because it looked like the ‘Cats were going to face Arizona in the second round and they would need him and the bigs to beat and bang with the dominant Deandre Ayton.
Plans changed on both fronts and Hamidou Diallo was the perfect complement to SGA in the backcourt in Boise.
The ‘Cats are now the favorites to come out of the South Region for more reasons than one. Sure, they’ll get the winner of a 16-seed/9-seed game on Sunday in the first of two potential games next weekend, but with Diallo playing like this, Kentucky is now even more dangerous.