Posted on: February 27, 2011 11:34 pm
Edited on: March 2, 2011 4:11 pm

Kentucky All-Access: Part 1

On Saturday afternoon, Kentucky defeated Florida 76-68 in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. In the 24 hours leading up to the game, CBSSports.com was given an all-access look at the team and its preparation for a big SEC home game. Over three parts, Matt Jones will detail the team’s activities, beginning with practice the day before through Saturday's game. Preparation varies from team to team, but Kentucky's process is similar to many other programs. We begin with Kentucky’s practice Friday afternoon. Parts 2 and 3 will run later this week.

A walk onto the basketball floor of the Joe Craft practice facility on the University of Kentucky campus gives one an immediate sense of the enormity of Kentucky basketball. Hanging on the wall are seven banners, one representing each national championship. There are no pictures of the coaches over the years or references to the players who have worn the Kentucky uniform. Just seven banners, showcasing each time Kentucky has reached its ultimate goal and cut down the nets.

This year’s Kentucky team seems unlikely to add number eight. Playing on the heels of one of the more beloved Wildcat teams of recent memory, this year’s UK group has not quite captured the Commonwealth’s imagination. With no John Wall to overwhelm with talent, Demarcus Cousins to manhandle the opposition or Patrick Patterson to provide veteran leadership, this UK team has struggled, losing 6 of 7 SEC road games. John Calipari regularly utilizes only six players, three super-talented freshmen and three veterans with little experience. That combination was 19-8 heading into Saturday’s game, good enough to be ranked in the Top 25, but not up to the standards of the seven banners.

The afternoon before every home game, Kentucky has a full practice, usually running between 90 minutes and 2 hours. The opponent this Saturday is Florida, meaning the vast majority of the Friday practice will be focused on preparation for the Gators. Usually at this time of year, Calipari says his practices are about execution and repetition, but this season has been different.

“I have had to spend much more time teaching with this group. I actually have to teach too much for this time of year, but this group is so young, I don’t have a choice.”

Kentucky follows a simple plan for game preparation. One coach, in this case Assistant John Robic, is in charge of breaking down the other team’s film and creating a game plan. The plan focuses on the team’s tendencies and personnel, and includes a few examples of common plays they run. Then, before final practice leading up to game day, Robic meets with the other coaches who will run as the scout team for the opposition. Robic calls the group his "starting five" and at Kentucky, that means Robic, his fellow assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Kenny Payne, along with graduate assistants Wayne Turner and Brandon Weems. These five spend a day learning the Gators offense and personnel so as to become Florida for the next day’s practice. Each game means digesting a new set system so it can be taught as simplistically as possible to the young Wildcats the next day.

On this Friday, as Kentucky comes on the court to begin practice, John Calipari injects a message of confidence into the group. "We can beat these guys. Florida is a good team, but they also lost at home to South Carolina. We can do this. I believe in us. I believe in you guys."

That message of affirmation has been one that Calipari has reinforced all season. Unlike previous groups that had what Calipari calls an "internal swagger," this group has required much more care. He told me afterwards, "I spend a lot of time reminding these guys that I believe in them and that they are capable of being as good as anybody in the country. I normally haven't had to do that, but with this group I do."

Calipari tells his team that the secret to beating Florida is simple. "This thing is going to come down to transition, crazy three-point baskets that we rebound and defending the pick and roll. We limit those things, we win."

For the next ten minutes, the team works on these keys. They begin with a drill designed to force defenders to fight through the pick and roll. Players guarding the ball are led into a large pad held by one of the assistant coaches and take bumps designed to silumate what they will receive from Florida’s big man duo of Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. When junior Deandre Liggins makes a weak attempt to fight through the screen, Calipari blows his whistle and reminds the team what's at stake: "We have a game tomorrow on national television! Do you care or not?"

Liggins' focus remains a concern for the Kentucky coach throughout the practice. At one point, after Liggins grabs a rebound, he fires a circus shot at the hoop rather than tossing it back to the point guard for a new set. Calipari walks toward the player and says in a powerful tone, “Hey, Deandre, this ain't for funsies! Don’t mess around! You want me to tell those pro scouts sitting over there that you don't care?"

Pro scouts watching practice is a constant at Kentucky. The majority of practices are watched by at least one pro scout and that  number increases the day before a game. Players are aware that it is not only a chance to warm up for their next college game, but also an unofficial audition for the next level. For many of these scouts, what they view in practice is equally, if not more, important to what they see in a game and thus focus is imperative not only for the team, but the individual players’ futures as well.

Whether in practice or games, Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb has had consistent issues with focus and effort all season. The latest example occurred in the previous game at Arkansas when his lack of consistent effort led to him sitting nearly the entire second half and overtime. This is clearly on Calipari’s mind early in Friday’s practice as he notices Lamb running a step slow in an early drill. Calipari waits until all attention is focused in his direction and makes clear, "I need one coach following Doron at all times today because he stops playing. Someone follow him and don’t let him stop once today."

With that focus attained, the coaching staff shifts to Florida and perfecting the game plan for Saturday. When the two teams played earlier in Gainesville, offensive rebounding was the difference. The Gators’ Chandler Parsons got two crucial putbacks late in the game, when Kentucky was unable to box out from a zone defense. But Calipari again stresses his theme of affirmation, telling his team that the problems in Gainesville were not totally their fault. "Last game we lost because they would take crazy threes and Parsons would rebound from the off side. And you know what, that's not your fault because we hadn't worked on rebounding on that rotation. But it shouldn't happen after today."

Stopping Florida, and Parsons in particluar, becomes the theme for the rest of the practice. Calipari says Parsons is the key to the game and the coaches work in detail on where they want him to get the ball and how to guard him once he has it.

"We want Parsons to fade and shoot outside shots. He can beat us inside, so if he gets the ball in the paint, it is probably too late," says Calipari as the Cats work on denying Parsons the ball whenever inside the three point line, while also placing a spy defender to shadow him on the off side of the basket for every 3-point shot.

Parsons' role is played by little-used reserve Jon Hood. Hood and fellow benchmate Stacey Poole have been the talk of the UK fan base in recent weeks, with many wondering why, with a bench this thin, the duo doesn’t see more playing time. Whether Calipari has heard those questions or not, he is quick to addresses them in practice. After Hood makes a mental error on defense, Calipari growls, "Yesterday you were terrific in here and I say, YES, I can put him in the game. And now you come out here and do this and I say, no I can't." Then when Poole goofs off for a second on the sideline, Calipari snaps and says, "people call and ask, why doesn't Stacey Poole play? That's why!"

Calipari's frustration comes from desperation. He is comfortable with the six players in his normal rotation of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, Deandre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. But Calipari desperately needs some other player to step on the court and be able to give solid minutes. He admits that "so far this year, the bench has not been my friend," but even this late in the season, he is not ready to give up. After one play in which the second team executes better than the starters, he challenges his reserve team: "That’s it! Now one of you step up and force me to go to my bench more!"

Unfortunately for Calipari, the player he most desperately wants to see challenge for playing time is reserve center Eloy Vargas. While Calipari never has said it publicly, Vargas' lack of development clearly is a major disappointment and hinders this team's progress. Ironically, Vargas is a transfer from Florida and Calipari hopes this game will motivate him to another level. "You went down there last time and played well because you wanted to show them you could play. Now do it again. Show them how good you are!"

A minute later, Vargas chooses not to dunk on an open attempt under the rim and misses a soft layup attempt. Calipari shows exasperation greater that at any point during the day screaming, "Eloy you are standing straight up and down! You cant get to the rim when you are standing there straight up with no bend! Are you already scared about tomorrow?" He walks away shaking his head as Vargas’s eyes never leave the floor below.

In the final third of practice, the focus shifts to the specifics of Florida's personnel. Calipari implores the players to remember who they are guarding at all times. He reminds them that they want Parsons shooting from behind the 3-point line, while shadowing the other guards on the team. "Make the (Kenny) Boynton kid take tough shots. He will make some, but keep making him take tough ones and it will work out. The (Erving) Walker kid is 6 foot tall. If you let him get inside and score on us, then we don't deserve to win anyway."

The practice ends with individual shooting by the guards and post work by the big men. It is then that the NBA scouts show some excitement as UK student-assistant coach Enes Kanter begins to work directly in front of them. Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA because of a violation of amateurism in his native Turkey. But his presence on the UK practice court is irresistible to everyone in attendance. He projects as a potential Top 5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and a cloud of mystery surrounds his development. As he posts up against Kentucky centers Harrellson and Vargas, his tremendous ability and potential is striking. He displays post moves that the UK players have no ability to stop. His moves likely are as good as those displayed by the best overall offensive big man in college basketball. His up and under, hook shot and 10 foot jumper already are polished and he puts the ball in the basket at will. Assistant coach Kenny Payne is left with nothing more to do except coach Vargas to move his feet quicker, but the mismatch in ability is clear.

Finally, Calipari then calls the team to the center of the court for one final message. He begins by saying that even with the loud crowd and tough opponent, the players must keep their heads. He reminds Deandre Liggins, who received two crucial technicals during the past two UK road games, that he needs to "stop showing out so much" after a bad call and focus instead on his defense. Calipari tells his team not to worry about score or time of the game, but "just play and if we play the way want, the result will take care of itself."

Before dismissal, he addresses Darius Miller individually for the first time. The quiet forward, who bears the weight of heightened expectations due to his status as a Kentucky state high school legend, is one of the most talented players on the team. However he has been prone to disappearing in games and his lack of aggressiveness is a constant issue. Calipari focuses directly on Miller and says, "you can create a matchup problem for this team. They don’t have anyone to guard you, so you can be the difference." As he speaks, he looks Miller directly in the eye and Miller shakes his head in agreement.

Practice is then dismissed and the players exit, with the exception of likely freshman All-American Brandon Knight who stays for his usual post-practice shooting. Calipari comes to the side and greets those in attendance, including CBS announcer Dan Bonner, who is in town calling the game and has watched the entire practice. After speaking with Calipari for a moment, Bonner waits until he walks away and says to me, “Calipari is a piece of work. But as you can see today, he sure is good at what he does.”

Matt Jones is a college basketball blogger for CBSSports.com and founder of kentuckysportsradio.com.

Category: NCAAB
Tags: Kentucky
Posted on: February 26, 2011 11:19 pm
Edited on: February 26, 2011 11:31 pm

Darius Miller takes Cats to another level

Posted by MATT JONES

SEC play has been rather predictable for Kentucky this season. While Vegas has put UK as a favorite in every one of its conference games, the actual results have followed a different path. If John Calipari’s team is on the road, chances are high that it will be involved in a winnable close game that ends in a heartbreaking defeat in the last minute. Conversely, if Kentucky is in Rupp Arena, a different team will emerge. This UK team will build a a large margin over its opponent sometime in the second half, making its difficulty in end-of-game scenarios irrelevant.

Saturday’s game against Florida followed the same general pattern. Kentucky turned a one point halftime lead into a 12 point spread midway through the second half and held on for a 76-68 victory. Part of the performance was similar to what Kentucky has shown in all home games this year. Its talented freshman overwhelmed their older counterparts on Florida and were able to win the “talent vs experience” battle. But what was different about the game may also give Kentucky hope for different results during the March battles away from Rupp Arena. 

Junior Darius Miller scored a career high 24 points, putting on a performance that Kentucky coaches have waited to see since he arrived on campus. Due to his status as a Kentucky high school legend, Miller has been a player for whom much has been expected. Since he arrived in Lexington three years ago, fans and coaches have patiently waited to see Miller blossom into nothing less than a star, as his combination of height, athleticism and quickness makes him a matchup nightmare for any defender. Yet in his first 2 1/2 seasons in Lexington, he has preferred instead to defer to teammates and has all too often become a forgotten member of the team, leading some fans to refer to him as “Disappearius.”

Not anymore. During SEC play, a new more aggressive Darius has been unleashed and the result of that assertiveness was seen in his career-best performance on Saturday. Guarded by the slower Chandler Parsons, Miller’s strength and quickness allowed him to exploit the matchup, both inside and outside. Miller ran Parsons off screens for open three point looks and when switches led to a different defender, he would move inside to score in the post. With Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones closely guarded, Miller became a defender for which Florida had to account, allowing him to create double teams and open looks for his teammates. The performance allowed for an offensive flow that has been rare for John Calipari’s team, especially in recent weeks on the road.

But most importantly for Kentucky, Darius Miller made the big play when the Cats had to have it late. Prior to the game, Calipari said, “I need another guy. I need another guy who wants the ball and goes and makes a play to win the game.” With 4:30 left in the game and Kentucky up 66-58, Miller made that play to seal the victory. After Doron Lamb missed an open three, Miller jumped over Florida center Vernon Macklin to grab a crucial offensive rebound. After one pass to Knight, Miller curled to the side to drain an open three that sent Florida to a timeout and most UK fans to the exits.

After the shot, Miller stuck out his tongue and gave a somewhat uncharacteristic loud scream. It was a striking departure in character for the player that has previously showed so little emotion on the court that one was left wondering if he consistently had a pulse. But complaints about this show of personality from UK coaches, or anyone else, will be nonexistent. On a team that starts three freshman and a senior with virtually no experience, Miller has to be not only a leader, but one that gives the team swagger. 

Afterwards Calipari said, “I need Darius to be that good in every game because I know he can be. He has the ability to take us to another level.” That other level is where a team has the ability to find a way to close out games on the road and on the neutral courts where the NCAA Tournament is played. On Saturday, Darius Miller showcased that he can be the catalyst to a big win over a ranked opponent in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. For Kentucky to reach its potential and make a March run, he will have to repeat that performance outside of the state that he has always called home.  

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Category: NCAAB
Tags: Florida, Kentucky
Posted on: February 26, 2011 9:46 am
Edited on: February 26, 2011 2:24 pm

Saturday Preview: Jimmer... Kawhi... be there!

Posted by Eric Angevine

Featured Game: BYU @ SDSU, 2:00 p.m. ET, CBS

Raise your hand if you legitimately thought you'd be waiting breathlessly for a top-ten matchup in the Mountain West when this season began. All eyes are on Jimmer and Kawahi as the Cougars attempt to seize control of the MWC by winning in Viejas Arena. BYU already owns a convincing 71-58 home win in the series, and we could see a third matchup for the auto-bid when the league tourney starts in March. So, in case you couldn't tell, this is "kind of a big deal" in San Diego.

Missouri @ Kansas State, 12:00 p.m., ESPN: As K-State attempts to get off the bubble and into the field, they need every advantage they can get. Facing a ranked Missouri team in the Octagon of Doom, where they are bound to struggle with the non-stop noise, is a big one. A win would give Frank Martin's Wildcats the perfect resume boost to go with their upset of the Kansas Jayhawks, which also happened in Manhattan, KS. | Video Preview

Syracuse @ Georgetown, 12:00 p.m., CBS: This is our first chance to see what Georgetown is capable of with Chris Wright out for a full game. The senior guard is supposed to be healed in time for the NCAA tournament, but it would surely behoove John Thompson III to find an adequate substitute for the short run, or risk a drop in the postseason seeding process. Keep an eye on that starting lineup. | Video Preview

Wichita State @ Missouri State, 1:00 p.m., ESPN2: The atmosphere in Springfield, MO should be electric. School officials are calling for a "Maroon-out" as Cuonzo Martin's Bears (14-3 MVC) host Wichita State (14-3) in the final game of the season for both teams. Winner gets the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney, which could mean the difference between an auto-bid and a Selection Sunday spent in a full-on cold sweat. Missouri State owns a road win in the series, but several weeks have passed since then. | Dennis Dodd

St. John's @ Villanova, 2:00 p.m., CBS: Simply put, both of these teams are in the Big Dance barring a complete collapse to end the season. The story here is really St. John's on the road. We know they can win, and win big, in MSG, but what will they do in a hostile environment with a top-25 ranking to defend? Also, could a Jay Wright vs. Steve Lavin throwdown be a reality series on the Fashion Channel? | Video Preview

Memphis @ UTEP, 3:00 p.m., ESPN2: Will Tim Floyd keep his jacket on today? Can Memphis continue to claw its way back into the national consciousness under Josh Pastner? It's a battle of C-USA frontrunners.

Florida @ Kentucky, 4:00 p.m., CBS: Our Matt Jones has secured an All-Access pass for this one, so we fully expect to see him occupying John Calipari's chair while the energetic head coach paces the sidelines. OK, maybe he won't be that close, but he's already teasing us with tidbits of what we'll learn about how the Wildcats tick. Watch the game so you can compare the TV experience to Matt's up-close-and-personal take. Oh, and because it's a hee-youge game between ranked SEC teams in one of the nation's most venerated arenas. That too.

Arizona @ UCLA, 4:00 p.m., FSN: This was supposed to be the Year of the Huskies in another weak season in the Pac-10, but it's turned into more of a redemption story. Arizona is back in form as Sean Miller rebuilds the team that stumbled without Lute Olson in command, and Ben Howland is raring to make the Bruins' absence from the NCAA tournament a one-year aberration. Should be a hot one in Pauley Pavilion.

Duke @ Virginia Tech, 9:00 p.m., ESPN: The Hokies have a lot of work to do if they want to get off the bubble and into a bracket, and this one game could be the linchpin of the entire image rehab process. Seth Greenberg's team has made a fairly frequent habit of upsetting top-ranked ACC teams. The Washington Post has a nice recap article about the Hokies' recent battles with No. 1 teams that gives the lowdown. | Video Preview

View the full schedule

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Posted on: February 24, 2011 1:54 pm

Three teams stumbling into March

Posted by MATT JONES

The last two weeks of the season are for one thing and one thing only, getting ready for the postseason. Unless a team plays a hated rival in the last two weeks, most of the coaches and players have their attention firmly focused on March and simply getting through the final stretch of games. For some teams however, the rush to finish the season is even greater, as their performance down the stretch has left much to be desired. For these three teams, March simply can’t come soon enough:


No team has had a greater fall in the last four weeks than Villanova. Whereas just a month ago, many (including this writer) believed Jay Wright finally had the correct formula to make another deep March run, now the Wildcats are a team in disarray. Villanova is 4-5 in the last nine games, with losses to Rutgers and Providence mixed in with an overtime escape versus lowly Depaul. What was once a balanced offense with the two Coreys combining with a formidable big man trio down low has become a stagnant attack that looks like the worst of the Villanova guard offenses of years past. All too often, the Wildcats simply stand around waiting for Corey Fisher or Corey Stokes to create a shot and the ball movement that had been so crisp early has all but disappeared. Jay Wright’s team has remained close in all of its games, but wasted two valuable opportunities for big home wins against Pittsburgh and Syracuse by executing poorly down the stretch. Villanova is still a good team, but it looks like a shadow of the group that had Final Four aspirations in January.



The Road Warriors they are not. Kentucky is now 1-6 in SEC road play after the loss on Wednesday night versus woeful Arkansas. In each of the games Kentucky has been in it until the end, losing the total by a combined margin of 18 points. However in each of the defeats, the Cats have made a series of crucial errors down the stretch that have caused a probable victory to turn into yet another defeat. Going into March, Calipari’s team will have one of the more talented starting fives in the field, but a lack of depth and ability to close out games is worrisome. The question one has to ask when evaluating Kentucky is whether the team we will see in the NCAA Tournament is the one that handles everyone easily in Rupp Arena, or loses to anyone on their home court. Most likely the true identity of the team is somewhere in the middle, meaning that Kentucky will be a great unknown for those filling out brackets and attempting to project the field.


Two weeks can change a lot. Georgetown was playing as well as any team in the country just ten days ago and John Thompson III’s group looked like a potential contender for a #2 seed. Since then, the Hoyas lost to UCONN on the road (no shame in that) and took a convincing defeat at home to Cincinnati (more shame there). But most importantly, star Chris Wright broke his non-shooting hand, meaning that a key ingredient to the team’s success is now unavailable. The Hoyas could get Wright back by Tournament time, but in the intervening weeks, they will have to play Syracuse, Cincinnati and the Big East Tournament without one of their most important contributors. In the process, their seed will likely drop and they will go into March with an unknown as to what their roster will look like when the ball is tipped for the Big Dance. Just a couple of weeks ago, only a few teams in America would have traded place with Georgetown. Now they are as much in flux as any team that will play in the NCAA Tournament.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 16, 2011 2:59 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:00 pm

ESPN innovation attempts die a slow death in SEC


Posted by MATT JONES

Technology and innovation are wonderful things. They give us the ability to see our favorite things in a new light and attempt to broaden our horizons in previously unforseen ways. But sometimes technology and innovation go awry and don't add to our experience, but rather subtract. The result isn't an improvement, but simply change for change sake. In those circumstances, one should hide the women and children because complaints and anger are sure to come.

Take for example the attempts by ESPN to "innovate" via their SEC basketball coverage. Likely due to the fact that SEC basketball fans are really just the mass of Kentucky followers and other teams' supporters biding their time until spring football, ESPN has used the league as a guinea pig for its new ideas in college basketball production. And, well...they have failed miserably.

The change began with the addition of in-game interviews with coaches, a gimmick that has been executed unsuccessfuly for some time in its NBA coverage and is not being migrated over to the college game. During SEC telecasts, each coach is expected to do one interview during a timeout in the first half to answer mundane questions about the state of the game. The questions are inevitably awful ("Hey coach, tell us what is going on out there") and it becomes clear that not only do the coaches not want to be talking, they affirmatively believe the interviews are a hindrance to the game preparation. The entire process hit its nadir last night with this talk with John Calipari:

The interview started late, was ongoing as the game began again and led to the great visual of a coach walking away in the middle of an answer. While we are more accustomed to halftime interviews, they are equally as worthless. But at least the halftime chat fests don't disrupt the flow of the game and simply take a minute away from an otherwise substantial mid-game break. These in-game interviews give no substance and seem to do nothing but put the poor reporter in a position to take a verbal scolding. They are a change definitely worth forgetting.

But even these interviews have not been the worst of the ESPN SEC "innovations". Last night during the Mississippi State-Kentucky game, ESPN debuted the "sky cam" as the primary view for its game coverage. The odd overhead angle, which gives the viewer the ability to know what a basketball game would look like if they a spider hanging from the roof, has previously been used for replays during basketball and football games. But last night, ESPN decided to make it the primary feed, allowing viewers to see plays as they develop and watch a game almost as if it were being drawn up on a clipboard.

The experiment was a complete failure. Immediately fans began flooding Twitter and various in-game live blogs to complain that the new view was not only inferior, but even making some like Xavier coach Chris Mack, nauseous and sick. The scorn was universal and caused some (ok, well me) to say it was the worst decision made at Kentucky since Billy Gillispie was made the coach. The response was so overwhelmingly negative that ESPN basically switched the game back to the regular angle in the second half, causing the fans of the two teams to put away their Dramamine and rejoin the telecast.

Complaints continued today, leading Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart to tweet out:

The awful camera angle did allow some to come up with good comedy lines (I liked the one here in which Thomas Beisner of KSR asked if Renardo Sidney ate the other camera angles). However, it generally was a complete bomb and is likely never to be repeated. One hopes for ESPN's sake that the next innovation it attempts to push on its SEC basketball contract will have more success than the two that preceded it. The network would be hard pressed to do much worse.
Posted on: February 12, 2011 5:08 pm
Edited on: February 12, 2011 5:23 pm

Same old script for Kentucky

Posted by MATT JONES

NASHVILLE ---  It happened again. The law of averages would suggest that if a team puts itself in a position to be in enough close games, eventually it would back its way into winning at least one of them. Kentucky came into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt 0-4 in the SEC in road games decided in the final two minutes, with three of the losses by 2 points or less. So with the game tied and 5 minutes to go in Memorial Gym, this would most certainly be the game that the randomness principle would push the Wildcats to a victory. Right?

Wrong. For the fifth time Kentucky found a way to collapse down the stretch, this time losing in Nashville 81-77. The specifics for this loss were slightly different than the games prior. Vanderbilt shot lights out from three point land, going 11-20 and hitting key baskets whenever UK threatened to make a run. Underrated Commodore guard John Jenkins had a career high, dropping 32 points on a myriad of amazing outside jumpers. And when the game was close down the stretch, the Commodores made their free throws, going 87% on 20-23 shooting from the line.

Even with all of that, Kentucky once again had a chance to win down the stretch. With five minutes to go in Saturday’s game, Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezili made a layup to tie the game at 66. As in all four of UK’s previous losses, the table was then set for the Cats to execute down the stretch and get a much-needed road win. But like in all four prior games, they found a way to wilt.

With the game tied, Kentucky immediately came down the court and missed an open jumper. The Cats were slow getting back on defense, leaving Jenkins wide open for a key three. Then, needing an answer, Wildcat junior Deandre Liggins turned the ball over on a boneheaded pass attempt, leading to a runout and another Jenkins jumper. Within a minute, a tie game became a five point deficit and Kentucky was unable to play catch up over the final four minutes.

But focusing on the specifics of how Kentucky lost this particular game misses the big picture on this edition of the Wildcats team. For whatever reason, this group simply doesn’t have what it takes to win in a hostile environment on the road. When the game is close and Kentucky doesn’t have the Rupp Arena faithful to provide support, this Kentucky team retreats. How it does so varies from game to game, but the consistent theme remains. Calipari’s group simply can’t close the deal.

On paper it doesn’t make sense. Freshman Terrence Jones has been the best player on the court in every game he has played in conference and scored 25 huge points on Saturday. Deandre Liggins is on an offensive hot streak and is probably the best perimeter defender in the league. Brandon Knight is a deadeye shooter with a high basketball IQ who would seem to have the point guard poise necessary to not get rattled on the road. But at the end of Thursday’s game, all three made huge, critical turnovers that caused their team to fall apart and lose down the stretch

One can point to the usual criticism of Calipari’s team and say, “well it’s all the ‘one and dones’ with no experience that kill you in close games.” But that doesn’t explain last year’s Kentucky team, younger than this group, but 8-2 in games decided in the last two minutes. For his part, John Calipari thinks the group is close to getting over the hump and after the game, said he was “encouraged” by the young Cats performance. 

Maybe so. But at some point I need to see this Kentucky team actually win one of these games. It is not enough to be merely be close. Kentucky is so talented that it will always be close.  It must find a way to turn close into a win. The Wildcats have found ways to lose down the stretch in a purely non-discriminatory fashion. Whether a rugged, defensive group like Alabama, a soft, athletic team like Florida or simply a one-man shooting show like Ole Miss, Kentucky has lost every time, each a bit more heartbreaking than the last.

There is of course still time for this to turn around. Pundits from Seth Davis to Greg Anthony to Gary Parrish all still believe this Kentucky team has the talent to make a run to the Final Four. I agree in theory. But I have also watched this team lose on the road in as many diverse fashions as one could ever imagine. When the going has gotten tough, this Kentucky team has found a way to get going...directly onto the bus after another loss. 

Outside of Ohio State, Texas, Kansas and maybe Duke, there isn’t one team Kentucky will face in the postseason that has a top six on its roster stronger than the Wildcats. While UK lacks depth and could use another big post presence, every team outside the Top 5 has serious weaknesses and Kentucky’s are no greater than those of the rest of the contenders. But how can I believe in a team that hasn’t yet shown an ability to win one close game? Am I supposed to assume that at some point the litany of close losses will end and this team will learn to be clutch down the stretch? Logic says it should happen, but my eyes tell a different story.

After today’s loss to Vanderbilt, Kentucky is 5-5 in conference and at the bottom of the SEC East. The Wildcats’ record going into March will surely improve, as most of its final games are in the comfy confines of Rupp Arena. However it is hard for me to believe that this team is headed for a run deep in March. No matter how good the talented Cats look when they are at their best, down the stretch we see the team at their worst. The randomness principle would suggest that will change eventually. Results suggest it will not.

Category: NCAAB
Tags: Kentucky
Posted on: February 9, 2011 2:18 am
Edited on: February 9, 2011 2:23 am

Kentucky upperclassmen step up against Tennessee

Posted by MATT JONES

LEXINGTON ---  Going into Tuesday night’s game against Tennessee, Kentucky coach John Calipari implored his upperclassmen to step and give the Wildcats some much-needed production and leadership. Calipari was surely tired of games like the one last week at Ole Miss in which his three Freshman accounted for 59 of the teams 69 points and seemed to be the only players on the roster who were capable of playing aggressively and without fear. The coach knew what any observer of the Wildcats could see. If Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb are the only scoring options on the team, then Kentucky is headed for a short run in March.

After Kentucky’s 73-61 victory over the Volunteers, it looks as if the message was received. The unheralded group of Kentucky upperclassmen, Deandre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller woke up to combine for 42 of Kentucky’s 71 points, their highest percentage of the team’s output collectively at any point this season. It was a performance that Calipari said was “fabulous” after the game adding, “we need them to be leaders and help us win against tough teams. Tonight they did that.”

Veteran leadership and performance is always important, but it is especially crucial for the very tricky environment created by a John Calipari team. In recent years, Calipari has become synonymous with the “one and done” talent he has coached, as players like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Demarcus Cousins make one year pit stops on a college campus to grace his programs with their uber-talent. When such a basketball force is just dropped from the sky onto a team, it certainly helps the overall talent, but it can make the team chemistry and relationship touchy to manage.

Imagine for a second if you are one of the 20 best players in America out of high school, as Jones, Knight and Lamb are, and have aspirations of a quick move to the NBA. It would be easy to look at your older teammates with a wary eye. You are expected to share the court with these Juniors and Seniors, who are clearly in your eyes less talented or else they would be in the NBA already, and then figure out how best to balance leadership and team chemistry with those who have seniority rather than ability. You want to respect these players, but if they are wilting in close games and forcing you youngsters to not only do the scoring, but also the leading, it could be easy to lose respect and team camaraderie.

That is why it is so important for John Calipari’s team to get production like Tuesday night from his older guys. Because Kentucky only goes six deep, Liggins, Harrellson and Miller will be playing a lot of minutes regardless and they must take on the leadership role for the team. But if they aren’t producing, their leadership ability is undermined and the young Freshman, who have been through no battles and are prone to cracking under pressure, have no one to keep them from making mental mistakes. Thus games like Tuesday versus Tennessee become so important.

Deandre Liggins was particularly impressive against the Vols, scoring 19 points in what was likely his best offensive performance of his UK career. Liggins is known for his role as a defensive stopper and he has established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in America. He handled that role well again, holding Scotty Hopson to 11 points, but for the first time in weeks, Liggins also took became an offensive creator, attacking the basket and drawing open looks for the UK three point shooters.

It was a performance that recalled the unlimited potential Liggins showed out of high school, when he had similar accolades to those now given to UK’s precocious freshmen. After arriving in Lexington under coach Billy Gillispie, Deandre had a rocky career, clashing with the former UK coach and nearly leaving the program before Gillispie’s departure. His career found new life as a defensive specialist under Calipari, but he has still taken a back seat to the rotating group of NBA Lottery picks that have come through Lexington during his last two years.

But Calipari now believes it is Deandre and the other upperclassmen’s time to shine, and more important tly, lead. He challenged each upperclassman to commit an action to his teammates going into the Tennessee game and each delivered on Tuesday night. Liggins rebounded the ball with authority, Harrellson added energy and effort and Miller attacked the basket while playing significantly less passive than in recent losses. Each decided that as Calipari said afterwards, they would “show that they are good basketball players” and not simply defer to the three freshmen that the 19 NBA scouts in attendance came to see. The end result was only the second game all season in which they accounted for over 55 percent of the team’s points as a group and an impressive victory.

But just as important as the win, the upperclassmen’s performance raised the spirit of the team and its potential going forward. As Doron Lamb said afterwards, “when those guys play good, I want to play just as good for them. They raise our energy and make it to where we can look up to them during the game.” The last point is the crucial one. Rather than just seeing the three upperclassmen as players the talented freshmen must carry, when the older Cats pull their weight, they then have the ability to lead.  And that leadership can then make up for the talented freshmen’s youth and inexperience.

John Calipari doesn’t expect to get 42 points from the trio of Liggins, Harrellson and Miller often this season, nor does he have to for success. In games where they score at that rate, he knows the Cats will  be difficult to beat, especially if Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight produce their normal offensive outputs. But Calipari doesn’t need star turns from his upperclassmen. He needs performances that are solid enough that they then can create the respect necessary to provide what this team needs more than anything, veteran leadership. Be good enough to harness the respect of their talented freshmen teammates, and this upperclass trio can have an impact much greater than their scoring output. That could then make Kentucky quite a dangerous team.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 6, 2011 2:38 am
Edited on: February 6, 2011 2:47 am

Kentucky's close game woes continue

Posted by MATT JONES

It was deja vu all over again for Kentucky fans Saturday night when Brandon Knight's three-pointer clanked off the side of the rim as time expired, giving Florida a 70-68 win over the Cats in Gainesville. For the fifth time this season, Kentucky went on the road, fell down by double digits in the second half, fought back to take the lead late, only to lose in the final minutes. Against North Carolina, Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama and now Florida, Kentucky has seen golden opportunities to grab road victories slip through its fingers down the stretch, each time in a bit more painful and frustrating manner than the last.

Against Florida, Kentucky stormed back from a 13 point second half deficit on the back of Brandon Knight. The freshman put on a spectacular show in the second half, scoring in bunches against former AAU teammate Kenny Boynton. Knight finished with 24 points, his ninth game scoring over 20, which tied the all-time Kentucky record for most games by a Freshman over that point plateau. And when Knight found an open Darius Miller for three with 3:40 left to cap a 22-6 rally that turned a 55-42 deficit into a 64-61 Kentucky lead, it looked as if the Wildcats would escape with a hard-fought SEC road victory.

But, like The Situation after a night at the bars on “The Jersey Shore”, the young Cats once again could not close the deal. On the ensuing two possessions, the Wildcats missed a rebound assignment, allowing a Chandler Parsons putback dunk, and then immediately followed it up by turning the ball over when Brandon Knight ran into a teammate attempting to set a screen. A three point lead turned into a one point deficit and Kentucky was forced to play from behind over the final two minutes.

Even still, Knight ended up with a relatively good look at the end to win the game. But after making his other four three point attempts, Knight was unable to connect on the last, sending the Cats back home with another defeat. Unlike in previous close losses, UK wasn’t beaten this time by a mental error, defensive lapse or a late jumper. But they were beaten nonetheless, finding a new excruciating way to drop a close game on the road. This edition of John Calipari’s team has been the bizarro version of the UK group from last season. The Wall/Cousins/Patterson team was 8-2 in games that were within five points going into the last television timeout, while this group is a pitiful 0-5 in such scenarios.

In all five losses, the Cats have failed in a different manner, but they have each followed the same general pattern. After falling behind by a large amount, the Cats have stormed back to take the lead, only to crumble down the stretch. This closing problem is disturbing, as it suggests the problems are not rooted in a continued lapse in preparation or random cold shooting nights on the road. But rather, Kentucky has simply been unable to perform in winning time. When the games are on the line and Calipari’s group needs one basket, rebound, loose ball or defensive stop, it simply hasn’t executed.  Kentucky has found unique ways to be consistently anti-clutch, a death sentence for a team with Championship dreams.

Before the Florida game, Calipari told Dick Vitale that he didn’t much care whether Kentucky won the SEC regular season. That is good, as Kentucky’s chances of winning the conference regular season are quickly slipping away. The Cats are currently three games behind SEC West leader Alabama, and sit two behind Florida in the SEC East. Instead, Calipari told Vitale that he is only worried about how the team’s play will have an effect on the seeding in March, when he still believes his team can make a run.

In theory one could see how Calipari’s optimism about March is possible. His team has lost four games by a combined total of 8 points and is very close to being 20-2, instead of 16-6. However the difference in record is not one based on misfortune or a lack of luck, but rather a consistent inability to execute down the stretch and make winning plays as great teams must do.

Ohio State has been in five games in the Big Ten decided by five points or fewer. It is 5-0 in those games. Kentucky has been in five games in the SEC decided by five points or fewer. It is 0-5 in those games. The difference in the amount and margin of close games between the No. 1 team in America and Kentucky is quite small. But when contrasting Kentucky's poor performances down the stretch in game after game with those of the nation's best team, a paraphrase of W Clement Stone’s famous admonition about people comes to mind.  There may be little difference amongst the top college basketball teams in America, but what little difference there is, makes a big difference.

Category: NCAAB
Tags: Florida, Kentucky
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