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Four Things We Know About … Kentucky

April 5, 2014

(Note: This is the fourth and final in a series of posts on the Final Four teams of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship™. Today we examine the Kentucky Wildcats, the No. 8 seed and survivor of the Midwest Region.)

 

For a team that was projected to be in Dallas, it has been a long and winding road for these bluest of the Bluebloods. Here are Four Things we know about the 8 seed from the Midwest Region, Kentucky:

1.) Kentucky is By Far The Most Talented Team in Dallas. Forget the fact they were seeded eighth in the Midwest Region – this was not your run-of-the-mill eight seed. You can look at the recruiting services like Scout or Rivals and see class after class of 5–star recruits make their way to Lexington. Or you can look at DraftExpress.com projections for the next two NBA Drafts and see six (6) projected First Round picks currently on Kentucky’s roster (and two more that won’t be on the team until next year). Either way, the Wildcats have been loaded with high school All-Americans and future professionals every year since Head Coach John Calipari took the job five (5) years ago, and this season’s version is not different; It includes seven (7) players that were rated by the scouting services as 5–star players, six (6) of them freshmen from the 2013 class alone, and three (3) of which are expected to be drafted by the NBA this coming June. You can tell how deep they are by seeing Marcus Lee, a 5–star freshman who didn’t even play in 15 of the Wildcats’ 38 games, shake the dust off and just dunk all over Michigan last Sunday (10 points on four [4] dunks and a fifth putback). Normally a team would miss a stalwart defensive presence like Willie Cauley-Stein, who injured his ankle early in their Sweet 16 game and might not be available this weekend, but Lee kept the Wildcats above water against Michigan until his teammates could take the team ashore. Kentucky actually starts five freshman, and while the comparisons to Michigan’s Fab Five are obvious, to this team’s credit they haven’t been as ubiquitous and self-promoting as they could have been. Starting with Julius Randle, the Brahma Bull coming back to his pen (the 2014 Final Four at AT&T Stadium is only 30 miles away from his high school in Plano,TX), this freshman and future lottery pick is focal point of Kentucky’s offense and the best rebounder on a team that led the nation in offensive rebounds and was #2 overall in rebound margin (+9.8). The Wildcats’ leading scorer (15.1) and rebounder (10.7) has continued his steady play in the NCAAs, averaging a double-double (15.5ppg/12rpg) in four (4) NCAA games and finding other ways to make the difference (such as his 6 assists against Wichita State). Kentucky’s backcourt is their own version of the Wonder Twins, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who both average over 31 minutes per game and are Top 2 in assists (combining for 5.8 per game, over half of Kentucky’s season total) and 3P% (both shoot around 35%). James Young is their primary shooting threat on the perimeter, making over two (2) threes a game as their second leading scorer. Dakari Johnson is their nominal fifth starter, averaging only 13.7 minutes per game but has had to step up in Cauley-Stein’s absence along with Lee. This Fab Five, along with forwards Lee and Alex Poythress off the bench, has the chance to do what Michigan’s Fab Five could not, and in many ways their run to the Final Four has been equally impressive …

2.) The Wildcats Have the Three Most Impressive Wins in these NCAAs. The Midwest Region bracket was going to be brutal for whomever survived it. As it came to be, Kentucky’s run to the Final Four was likely the toughest in NCAA Tournament history. Round of 64 opponent Kansas St wasn’t chopped liver, Kentucky leading for the last 32+ minutes but never able to fully pull away until late in the Battle of the Wildcats. Yet that game was merely the amuse bouché, with three main courses on the way. First up was undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State, the Shockers becoming the first team in NCAA history to start 35-0, and what ensued was by many accounts the best game of these NCAAs as the gutty mid-major in the reversed role of the favorite traded punches for 40 minutes with the basketball bluebloods from the Bluegrass State before losing their first and only game this season. As if that wasn’t enough, the Defending National Champion and bitter in-state rival Louisville Cardinals were awaiting them in the Sweet 16. In the matchup of the last two National Champions, Kentucky spotted Rick Pitino’s Cardinals an 18-5 lead in the first half before storming back behind their Wonder Twins (Andrew posting 14p/5r/7a and Aaron hitting the go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute), vanquishing their arch-enemies for the second time this season. For their efforts, the Michigan Wolverines and their #1 rated offense stood between them and a trip to Dallas, but Aaron Harrison once again providing the late heroics with a late three-pointer in winning their third barnburner in a row. Along the way, Kentucky became the only team in NCAA Tournament history to beat both the Defending Champion and the previous season’s Finalist on their way to the Final Four, and according to KenPom beat three of the Top 10 teams in basketball. Surviving that gauntlet require these Wildcats to find the winning formula at the end of games …

3.) No Team Has Closed Out Games Better In This Tournament. Coffee is for closers (NSFW), and no team has drank more coffee in this tournament than Kentucky. That certainly wasn’t the case for most of Kentucky’s regular season, losing 10 games after starting out as the consensus Preseason No. 1 ranked team. But it all started to come together for these kitties at the SEC Tournament, losing in the final to Florida but coming back from 16 down with 18:09 in the second half to only lose by one, 61-60, sparking a fire that hasn’t slowed since. Against Kansas St they pulled away late, turning a two point lead with 15:08 to go into a 13-point lead with 0:52 left in the game before staving off a late Kansas State rally for a 56-49 win. In their 78-76 heartstopper over Wichita St, Kentucky was down 69-64 with 4:37 left before ending the game on a 14-7 run. The Wildcats then closed out the Louisville game on a 15-3 run, turning a 7-point deficit with 4:33 remaining into a 74-69 triumph. And against Michigan, once again Kentucky snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, outscoring Michigan 24-17 over the final 11 minutes, culminating in Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 0:03 left to send the Wildcats to Dallas. Clearly having to fight Kentucky’s athleticism, massive size inside and length on the perimeter at both ends of the floor for 40 minutes can exhaust even the most resolute opponents. Clearly, that is by design, even if it has taken longer than expected …

4.) Winning Has Become Old Hat For John Calipari. Leading Kentucky to their third Final Four in his five year tenure, Calipari has pretty much done and seen it all. Yet some are saying this team may be the best coaching job of his career, acting as a master psychologist and using the regular season to mold a roster full of all-stars and freshmen auditioning for the NBA into a cohesive team of players who accepted their roles and have excelled in them when it matters the most. The ball movement has become crisp and shot selection has improved accordingly, as during their NCAA run Kentucky is shooting 2.3% higher overall (47.4% compared to a season-long average of 45.1% before the NCAA Tournament) and 7.2% better from three (39.7% compared to 32.5%). Just watching them now compared to earlier this season, defensive transition as well as their overall body language have improved by leaps and bounds. Last year’s team couldn’t get out of their own way, ending the season losing to Robert Morris in the NIT. This year’s team looked to be headed down a similar path, an early flameout in the NCAAs, but as my Grandpa always said, better late than never.

 

 

Predicting the games themselves (Florida-Connecticut is at halftime as of this posting, Connecticut up 25-22), I like Florida over Connecticut, pulling away in the second half before Connecticut can muster any late heroics as I just think the Gators will be too much defensively and on the boards for the Huskies. In the second game I like Kentucky in a battle of wills over Wisconsin, as the Badgers will try to clog the lane against a dribble-drive offense filled with superior athletes aimed at penetration and dunks or lay-ups, while the Wildcats will try (and succeed) to maintain their rebounding dominance. Should these games go as my Magic 8-ball told me they would, it would set up an all-SEC Final and a fourth game between Florida and Kentucky, raising the question of whether it is harder, or easier, to beat a team four times in the same season. My guess is harder, but my bet is that it gets done for Florida. My pick at the beginning of this tournament, I’ve seen nothing to justify changing that now.

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