When they lose: Wildcats' thin roster makes foul trouble a problem

by | CBS Sports
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HOUSTON -- Devising a game plan for defeating these Kentucky Wildcats, especially away from Rupp Arena, is something that earlier in the season would not have been very difficult.

Kentucky was an offensively simplistic team, relying heavily on contributions from Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight. If one of the two young freshmen had a bad game, Kentucky was vulnerable to losing to any team, as showcased by their defeats at Ole Miss and Arkansas.

But now Kentucky is a changed team and if they lose in Houston, it will be for an entirely different set of reasons. The Wildcats have diversified their attack and what once were weaknesses have become strengths. But Kentucky still has vulnerabilities and if exploited, John Calipari's team will not win their eighth title:

Darius Miller sets a pick for Wildcats teammate Brandon Knight during Kentucky's defeat of UNC. (Getty Images)  
Darius Miller sets a pick for Wildcats teammate Brandon Knight during Kentucky's defeat of UNC. (Getty Images)  
Foul trouble: If one goes back and looks at the worst of UK's defeats this season, the common thread is foul trouble rearing its head, especially early in the game. Calipari has chosen to play only six players, primarily out of necessity, and that thin roster makes games a constant walk on the wild side.

Kentucky has been fortunate to have no major injuries and any concern about fatigue is generally muted due to the longer timeouts and halftime sessions in the NCAA tournament. But foul trouble is still Kentucky's biggest Achilles' heel. If two Kentucky players get two fouls in the first half, it forces Calipari to go extensively to Eloy Vargas or Jon Hood, bench players who have seen little time and have produced very little. This often causes a disruptive flow to the game in the last minutes of the first half and can be the reason for large halftime deficits.

Against UConn in Maui, foul trouble hit nearly the entire team and the Huskies took advantage, getting a late first-half run to build a large lead that they would never lose. If that happens again, Kentucky is vulnerable against any of the remaining opponents.

Knight falls in Houston: Since Kentucky began its late season run, it has seen more production from elements of its offense that previously were stagnant. But it still has one contributor that cannot afford a bad game -- point guard Brandon Knight. Against Princeton in the first round, Knight couldn't hit a shot and a victory over the Ivy League opponent was not assured until Knight hit a runner in the final seconds.

The freshman changes how teams are forced to guard Kentucky. He extends the defense with his terrific outside shooting and his ability to get to the basket. When he plays well, he often draws a double team, which results in open shots for Darius Miller and Doron Lamb. Plus, Knight's ability to score off the pick and roll gives Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones the chance to score off the double team. If Knight isn't playing well, Kentucky's offense can grow stagnant, and when that happens, long game-killing scoring droughts often follow.

Veterans lose their mojo: As has been written all week, the secret to Kentucky's late success has been the improved play of veterans Miller, Harrellson and Deandre Liggins. The three have improved each week and, beginning in the NCAA tournament, have become central to Kentucky's offensive and defensive revitalization. However, all of that success has somewhat come out of nowhere and does lead to the feeling that it could evaporate as quickly as it appeared.

If Miller were to return to the perimeter dweller who simply defers to his younger teammates and refuses to take advantage of mismatches, Kentucky will have trouble on offense. If Liggins loses his tenacity on defense and his outside shooting touch, the team's most important athletic weapon would no longer be available. And if Harrellson forgets to bring the energy and effort, the team's top offensive rebounder and emotional leader is not available for duty. All three have improved their game exponentially, but they need two more top-level performances or Kentucky will be in trouble.

For Calipari, Kentucky's last 10 games have showcased that it matters less who the opponent on a given night is, but rather how his team is playing. Even though Ohio State and North Carolina presented severe matchup problems for Kentucky, the offensive and defensive efficiency UK showed led to upset victories. Now Calipari has two teams that his Kentucky group actually matches up against quite well. But the early losses to less-talented teams showcase that if any of the three factors above are not there, the Wildcats can lose to any team just as easily as they can beat any team.

If Kentucky falls before cutting down the nets on Monday night, chances are high it will be because of foul trouble, a bad Brandon Knight game or the veterans taking a step in the wrong direction.

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