Inside Look at Kentucky: Part 2

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Last updated: 03/24/2011 6:23 PM
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Men's Basketball
Inside Look at Kentucky: Part 2
By Brandon Castel

In his first season at the helm of the Kentucky basketball program, John Calipari led the Wildcats back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004-05.

They knocked off East Tennessee State, Wake Forest and Cornell, before being bounced from the tournament by West Virginia. Despite losing nearly their entire roster to the NBA, including No. 1 overall pick John Wall, Kentucky will play for a chance to get back to the Elite Eight Friday in New Jersey.

Instead of Cornell standing in their way, however, it is the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes of Ohio State. In part one of our two-part series, we checked in with a “Blue Blooder” for inside look at how the Wildcats stack up against Ohio State.

We continue our inside look at Kentucky with a number of key matchups in Friday night’s game.

(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.)

Defending Sullinger

With their star-studded frontcourt a year ago, not many people had heard the name Josh Harrellson until this year. The 6-foot-10 center out of St. Charles, Mo. averaged only four minutes per game off the bench last season as a junior, but that number jumped to 28 minutes a night this season with the departures of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton.

“He is a blue-collar player, a banger on the boards. He is nothing special offensively but has a knack for offensive rebounds and put backs,” said Dustin Yonts, our Kentucky enthusiast who bleeds Blue and White

“He also has a decent little hook shot, and is a hard-nosed defender.”

Harrellson was an up-and-down scorer during the regular season. He averages 7.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but has really turned it on in the tournament, totaling 30 points and 18 rebounds in two games on the opening weekend.

He has not faced many elite big men this season, but did hold Georgia’s Trey Thompkins to nine points and 10 rebounds in a 66-60 win. Earlier in the year, however, Harrellson was mauled by North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, who went for 27 points and 11 rebounds in a 75-73 win over Kentucky.

Both Harrellson and his back up, Eloy Vargas fouled out of that game.

“The biggest key to this game may very well be Harrellson’s ability to stay out of foul trouble,” Yonts added.

That’s because Kentucky will likely start out trying to defend Sullinger one-on-one in the post with Harrellson so that they can stick to Ohio State’s shooters on the outside.

If Sullinger can get Harrellson to pick up some early fouls, the Wildcats will have to turn to Vargas, a 6-foot-11 junior from the Dominican Republic, who plays 8.1 minutes a game for them off the bench.

“Despite his size, Sullinger will have a clear advantage if Vargas is in the game,” Yonts said.

“He lacked confidence for most of the year, but is starting to play better as of late. He is a good shot blocker and decent scorer around the rim, but the knock on him is that he is soft.”

A former 4-star prospect who played his freshman year at Florida, Vargas hasn’t done much since transferring to Kentucky from Junior College. He has a total of 57 points and 71 rebounds on the season.

Best Matchup of the Game

Though Sullinger vs. Harrellson and Aaron Craft vs. Brandon Knight are both intriguing matchups, the best one in Friday night’s game might very well be David Lighty against Terrence Jones. Much like the Craft-Knight matchup, this one features a gritty collegiate defender against an explosive pro prospect.

At 6-foot-8 and 244 pounds, Jones is second on the team in both scoring (16.1) and rebounding (8.7) this season, but has been wildly inconsistent over the last two months.

“He can get to the hoop on anyone but is either hot or cold,” Yonts said of the freshman.

“He can shoot the mid-range jump shot, but he’s more of a rim guy. He struggles going to his right and he’s not a great 3-point shooter (just 30.6% for the season), but he doesn’t shoot many of them (72 attempts in 35 games).”

Jones has an obvious size advantage against Lighty, but that’s nothing new for the fifth-year senior. Lighty has shown an ability to defend just about any position on the court, and even matched up against NBA lottery pick Derrick Favors in last year’s tournament.

Lighty is a smart defender who studies a lot of film on his opponents. He will be aware of Jones’ struggles going to his right and will play him as a slasher and not a shooter. Unless Jones has a rare on night from behind the arc, the key for Lighty will be to stay out of foul trouble. He found himself on the bench for much of the first half against Tennessee in last year’s Sweet 16 loss.

What, Will He Be

The other matchup to watch for will be the multi-faceted scoring attack of William Buford against Kentucky’s best perimeter defender, DeAndre Liggins.

“I’m excited to see the Liggins vs. Buford matchup,” Yonts said.

Like Harrellson and Darius Miller, Liggins was a Billy Gilliespie recruit, having signed with Kentucky back in 2008. He doesn’t score much for the Wildcats (only 8.5 points per game), but much like David Lighty, he prides himself on his ability at the defensive end.

“In my opinion, Liggins is one of the best defenders in the country,” Yonts said of the junior out of Chicago.

“He is about 6-6 with a high motor and great length, but his aggressiveness can get him into foul trouble.”

Liggins fouled out of the Tennessee game in the regular season finale, and nearly fouled out of the opening round game in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss. He has cut his fouls down lately, but it won’t help that he’s going against a confident William Buford.

Predicting the Outcome

“I think this is going to be a closely contested game,” said Yonts.

“These two teams are so similar; it’s hard to think this one won’t go down to the wire.”

That might change if Sullinger can get Harrellson in early foul trouble and control the game inside. The Buckeyes are almost impossible to stop when they have the inside-out game, which is one area they have a major advantage over Kentucky.

A lot will also depend on how well Craft can do against Knight, as well as which team has a hot shooting night.

“It might come down to who has a better shooting night between Diebler and Miller,” Yonts added.

“I’m going to go with Kentucky 73-69, and hope that I’m not eating my words come Friday night, or else I’ll be crying myself to sleep.”

Part I of this two-part series.

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