March 26, 2014

Midwest Regional peek: Kentucky

Kentucky's roster full of prep luminaries didn't exactly fulfill the dreams of those printing up 40-0 T-shirts before the season started. The Wildcats are coming on now, though, and a major focus at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Indianapolis.

John Calipari's crew stands 26-10 on the season, and went 12-6 in an SEC dominated by Florida. The question becomes, are the Wildcats growing up at the right time, following their NCAA-ouster of a win against formerly undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State?

Brett Dawson, of, part of the network, share his thoughts on Kentucky, as well as what could happen if a Kentucky-Michigan championship game developed in Indianapolis.

Here's Dawson…

On whether Kentucky is playing its best basketball of the season: "That's definitely fair to say. You look at the way they played compared to the start of the SEC Tournament, they're probably more like the team people thought they were going to be.

"They've been very good defensively since the start of the SEC Tournament. Going into Wichita State, they were only giving up 58 points a game those first four games - the three SEC games and the Kansas State game. That was significantly down from where they were in the regular season, which was 66 points a game.

"Their opponent shooting percentages were down, they're defending the three-point line better, and they're better offensively as well. Their scoring is up a little, they've been more efficient. They've just played a lot better.

"They spent most of the year outside the top 30 in the Kenpom rankings in offense and defense, and now they're in that range, the top-25 range, that championship teams always are. They always get into that top-25 offensive and defensive efficiency range for him.

"They've changed a lot. They've gotten a whole lot better. They're just sharing the ball better. A couple of guys have figured things out, and the twins are playing better; Aaron and Andrew Harrison have just started to play really well.

"They were up and down all season. In the five post-season games, they've been really good. Aaron is shooting it really well, and Andrew is running the team really well. That's just made all the difference in the world, offensively."

On how much of the improvement is a natural maturing of a very young team: "A lot. It's sort of a mantra for Calipari to say, 'I like my team. I like my team.' You never know if he means it, because last year he said it all the way through to the end, that he thought they could get there still.

"I don't know if he ever really believed it, but in 2011, they were fairly young then. They had some more experienced guys than this team does. He said it that year, too. He was convinced it was still a pretty good team, even as they struggled winning games away from home. Then they put it together and made a Final Four run and really went through as tough a bracket as they could.

"He's done this before with young teams, and it does take some time. Two years ago really spoiled people about what you can do with a freshman-dominated team, when they won the title. But that team was really different, because they had Darius Miller, a four-year starter, as a senior. Then you had two guys, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who had started for a Final Four team the year before.

Those were three guys with a lot of experience. This team only brought back two guys who played a lot last year, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, and those guys are both not alpha male personalities, basketball-wise. They just didn't have every much experience, leadership and guidance.

"The thought was the personalities of these freshmen were such that they would be able to do that, but it turns out that just wasn't the case. They got into a situation where I don't think they're really selfish guys, but they'd do some selfish things. They all were the best player, or in the case of the twins, the two best players, on their high school teams, their AAU teams.

"When things went well for them in stretches at Kentucky, they looked really good this year. As soon as they got hit in the mouth, there was a little bit of adversity, what would happen is, every guy would think that because this is always the way he'd done it, he had to make the play to win the game.

"They didn't really depend on one another at all. Everyone was trying to make his own play and do his own thing, and that just doesn't work. It was as mistake they just didn't quite figure out. It took them awhile to put it together. When they hit rock bottom, you thought they never would get it.

"Calipari has a little plaque on his desk that says, 'Never give up on your team.' The point being, when you've got that many freshmen and they're that talented, it still can come together, even if it's really, really late. It seems like it has for them here.

"Now, they've still only really beaten a couple of really good teams all year. Wichita was a really good team. They beat Tennessee back when Tennessee was not quite there yet, still kind of scuffling like they were. They beat Louisville early, when Louisville was pretty good.

"Those are the quality wins. Most of the really good teams they've played, they lost to. They played a lot of average to bad teams in the SEC, and they played a great Florida team three times. It's been a long time since they'd beaten a good, quality team. Kansas State is okay, and Wichita State is really the first time they've stepped up in a long time and beat somebody who is really good."

On the anticipation for Kentucky-Louisville: "People are really excited. Both sets of fans are really excited. Two years ago, they played in the Final Four. Kentucky had been the best team all year. In that situation, if you're Kentucky, you've lost two games all year, and you've really been, wire-to-wire, the best team in the country, if you lose to Louisville, it ruins everything. It runs the season as a fan.

"There was a lot more build-up and pressure for that one. Then, just the stakes - it was the Final Four. That was also the first time they'd played in the tournament since 1983. That takes away a little of the buzz for this one, but it's still a big deal, because Kentucky won the thing two years ago, Louisville won it last year.

"You've got the last two champions in a big rivalry game, and you can imagine what that would be like, if Michigan and Michigan State were playing in a game like that. But if they were doing it for the second time in three years, and it's two rounds earlier than what they'd done it before, it does take a little bit away from it.

"It's still a big deal, but not nearly the deal it was two years ago."

On his outlook should Kentucky and Michigan make it through to play on Sunday: "I've actually watched Michigan a lot. In my bracket, Michigan comes out of this region. But I had Wichita State beating Kentucky, so…

"I had Michigan beating Wichita State. I really like Michigan and I have for a while.

"My question, if Kentucky and Michigan get there, involves the same reason I think Kentucky has a pretty good chance to beat Louisville. They're so much bigger than everybody. They're really big, across the board. The guards start 6-6, 6-6, 6-6 in the backcourt, and Julius Randle is 6-9, they've started a seven-footer at center and they come back with another 6-11 guy. The second guy off the bench is a 6-8 guy.

"They're huge, and they're really started to play like a big team in this stretch where they've played well. They've gotten better as a defensive rebounding team. That was a hole for them in the beginning of the year.

"They're a great offensive rebounding team, one of the best in the country. But with defensive rebounding, they've not been great, but they've been great lately. The other thing is, they've been a physically imposing team in the backcourt. They've been so hard to deal with in the backcourt, because of their size.

"I like Michigan against them better than some teams, because Michigan is not tiny in the backcourt. Some of those guys are pretty long, and that helps them a little bit. Spike Albrecht is obviously different, and you have to contend with that in some ways. That creates some match-up problems for Kentucky, but certainly creates some for him, because they're so big.

"I loved Michigan, on paper, at the beginning of the year, when I thought Kentucky was going to be great. I really liked Michigan in the match-up with them, because I thought they'd have [Mitch] McGary.

"As it is, Kentucky's size would be a problem. Michigan's shooting would be a problem. They're really athletic, and if they shoot the ball really well, Kentucky is susceptible to giving up some long shots. They play in such a way that if you take a lot of threes, you'll get some against them.

"They tend to play man. They're going to make you start your offensive out kind of far away, push you out and be physical. That's the way they've played recently, anyway.

"Calipari, at the beginning of the year, kind of wanted to stay away from physical play, because he thought the game was going to be called so differently. But it hasn't been, from the rule changes. It hasn't changed as much as he wanted it to, and that's been another thing for them. They've just played more physically. It's probably been to their advantage, because they're so big.

"They'll give up some threes. It happens sometimes to them. Wichita State made 10, and I did not think they could beat Wichita if they made 10 threes. If Michigan hits 10 or 12 three, they'll be right there, no matter how Kentucky plays. If they don't make a lot of threes, Kentucky has a chance … they're at the stage right now, they can beat anybody, especially if somebody has a bad shooting night. They can take it to them inside, and they're playing so well defensively.

"The three-pointer is the great equalizer. Michigan is sort of a fascinating team against them. I saw Michigan against Illinois, where they were just on fire from three-point range.

"Michigan has beaten Michigan State twice, and that's a very big team. That's a team with a lot of size, that matches up reasonably well with Kentucky, and yet Michigan was able to beat them both times in the regular season. The fact that they were able to match up so well with Michigan State twice makes you think the size thing isn't going to be too overwhelming for them.

"But Kentucky is even bigger than Michigan State. It would be a really intriguing match-up, a difference in styles. They haven't played since the Fab Five were sophomores, Kentucky and Michigan, and this Kentucky team is similar, if you look at their season, to the Fab Five when they were freshmen.

"They sort of scuttled around in the regular season and really put it together in the postseason. Kentucky, through two games, is really starting to follow that pattern. A lot of us track that, how similar this team is to that team, which was a real true freshman-dominated team. They had some older players, but the freshmen were all their best players.

"There would be a lot of subplots to it, and I think it would be really interesting. I could not tell you who I think would win, but the difference between the two would make for a really interesting game, with Kentucky's size versus the way Michigan will spread you out and shoot it."

...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now!