Inside Look at Kentucky from a Member of “Big Blue Nation”
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Few programs in the history of college basketball have more tradition than the University of Kentucky.
Not only are the Wildcats the winningest program of all time in terms of victories, but they also possess the highest winning percentage of any school. Much of that has to do with Adolph Rupp, who laid the foundation for Kentucky basketball as we know it today, winning four NCAA championships in a 10-year span.
A four-time National Coach-of-the-Year award winner, Rupp was the coach at Kentucky from 1930-72. His teams appeared in 20 NCAA Tournaments during that span with six Final Four appearances. They also won 27 regular season SEC titles and 13 tournament titles.
That is a tremendous resume for any program, but it won’t help Kentucky score any points Friday night when they face off against No. 1-seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
For our two-part series, we spoke with someone who knows the Wildcats about as well as anyone in the country for an inside look at this Kentucky team, and what to expect Friday in Newark, N.J.
(Editor’s Note: Keep in mind, this comes directly from a member of “Big Blue Nation,” so it is going to have natural slant towards all things Kentucky.)
Wildcats At a Glance
The Wildcats enter this game having won their last eight games—including a pair of wins over Florida—and are 27-8 overall on the season. They were undefeated at home, but lost road games at North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt and Arkansas—along with a neutral-site game against UConn— before running the table in the SEC Tournament.
“I was shocked to see them as a 4-seed in the tournament considering all of their losses were on the road,” said Dustin Yonts, a Kentucky enthusiast who bleeds Blue and White.
“I thought they would be at least a 3-seed, and possibly even a 2-seed. They probably deserved it more than Florida.”
UK won its first two games of the NCAA Tournament, but struggled against Princeton in the first round, with point guard Brandon Knight hitting a game-winning driving layup at the end. A big part of that was facing a unique style they had not seen much of before, similar to Ohio State when they play Northwestern. Kentucky also trailed West Virginia 41-33 at the half in their second-round game before rallying to win 71-63 behind a career-high 30 points from point guard Knight.
They play a fast-paced style of offense under second-year coach John Calipari, averaging 76.4 points per game on the season. They primarily play only six players, with four of them averaging double-figures this season.
“They have gone to a smaller lineup as of late, similar to Ohio State, with a point guard, three wings and a big man,” Yonts said.
“They like to play Terrence Jones at the four to create mismatches, much like Ohio State does with David Lighty.”
Defensively the Wildcats play both man-to-man defense and a 2-3 zone, with center Josh Harrellson clogging up the middle. They led the SEC in blocked shots during the regular season, but allowed teams to shoot better than 33 percent from behind the arc.
“The first thing I can tell you is that they are almost as good as Ohio State when it comes to shooting three,” Yonts said.
“They have three of the top 3-point shooters in the SEC in Doran Lamb, Darius Miller and Brandon Knight.”
As a team, Kentucky shot the ball better (39.6%) from behind the arc than any other team in the SEC this season. Lamb and Miller were the top-two three-point shooters in the conference during the regular season by percentage, with both shooting better than 44 percent from behind the arc on over 100 attempts each this season.
“Miller is a great 3-point shooter, not as good as Diebler, but not far behind. At 6-foot-7, he can drive and score inside a little more than Diebler,” said Yonts, who is also quite familiar with Ohio State basketball.
“Some games he will go for 15-20 points—like he did against Princeton (17 points on 6-of-11 shooting) in the first round—and other games he will disappear the way he did against West Virginia (3 points on 1-of-7 shooting) in the second round.”
Knight actually leads the team in the three-point attempts with 203 this season. He has connected on 38.4 percent of those outside looks, but has struggled from long-range as of late. Since going 4-of-7 behind the arc in a loss to Vanderbilt back in February, Knight has made just 17of his last 57 (29.8%) threes.
What Knight lacks in outside shooting, he makes up for in quickness
“Knight is deceptively fast and good at driving the ball. He has a great floater in the paint, and good handles, but they could be better,” Yonts said of Kentucky’s first-year point guard.
“He is not in the in the same class as the Derek Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall point guards that Calipari has had in the past, but he is right behind them.”
The freshman out of Fort Lauderdale is a much different player than Wall was for Calipari a year ago. While he does get out in transition, he relies much more on coming off screens and pick and rolls than Wall did.
Knight is coming off a career game against West Virginia in the second round. After scoring his only basket of the game to beat Princeton at the buzzer in the first round, Knight went for 30 points, three rebounds and four assists against the Mountaineers.
He was only 9-of-20 from the floor and 3-of-8 from behind the arc, but he got to the free throw line 10 times and knocked down nine of them.
“If he comes out hot, it will be a great sign for the Cats,” Yonts said.
For that reason, the Buckeyes might actually consider starting point guard Aaron Craft, although Matta has never wavered from his resolve to bring Craft off the bench after the first media timeout.
“It changes a little bit of who we are and how we’re playing. It’s a different look for us. He’s a great spark plug for us, both defensively and offensively,” said Matta, who usually tries to sub Craft near the 15-minute mark of the first half.
“Transition wise, our offense can get to the basket and make plays, but he’s setting guys up. The thing I also like about Aaron is, when he checks into the game, he has a great understanding of what’s going on and what needs to be done.”
Craft’s understanding and ability to anticipate on defense are uncanny for a freshman. He was a unanimous selection to the Big Ten All-Defensive team, but his matchup with Knight will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.
“Craft is a good defender and I think he will do okay against Knight because he hustles on every play,” Yonts said of the freshman out of Findlay.
“In my opinion, this will be the best point guard he has faced all year, however, so the advantage has to go to Knight.”
At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Knight is the most highly thought of pro-prospect that Craft has faced this year. He is projected to be a mid-first round pick after his freshman year, but there could certainly be some debate as to whether he is the best college point guard.
In his first season of collegiate basketball, Craft has already faced the likes of Florida’s Erving Walker, Michigan’s Darius Morris and Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor, along with Demetri McCamey of Illinois, Kalin Lucas of Michigan State and Penn State’s Talor Battle. That may not be Murderer’s Row, but it’s a pretty solid list of collegiate point guards, all of whom bring something a little different to the table.
Only one of them, Jordan Taylor, has gotten the better of Craft, and that was simply by knocking down threes in the second half of their game up in Madison. Even then, Craft repaid the favor in Columbus by holding Taylor to one of his lowest scoring outputs of the season.
Knight has elite-level end-to-end speed, but he is loose with the ball and has a knack for turning it over. He averages over three giveaways per game this season, and has had games with five, six and even eight turnovers. He’s been better at taking care of the ball lately, but still had four turnovers in the win against West Virginia.
*Check back with the-Ozone for part two of our inside look at Kentucky. We will break down their challenge of stopping Jared Sullinger, as well as some other matchups on the perimeter, and even a prediction from “Big Blue Nation.”
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