Scouting the Final Four: Kentucky Wildcats

More scouting reports: Florida | Connecticut | Wisconsin

When watching a game or looking at statistical trends, we might figure out one or two ways to slow down Wisconsin’s half-court offense or score against Florida’s multiple defenses. But that’s obviously not the whole story. But what about the guys who get paid to break down that stuff; what are they thinking?

During the regular season, we broke down eight potential title contenders, one each week since mid-January. Of course, only one of those teams reached the Final Four. With the four national semifinalists now set, though, it’s time for an in-depth scouting report on each team. I will talk to four or five coaches who played those teams this season, and get in-depth insight into each team.

Can Connecticut win it all? Why is Florida the favorite? And what about Kentucky and Wisconsin? We’ll find answers to each of those questions, and much more.

Style of play

“Somewhat in transition. They’re not a real fast team, but they have fast guys. They don’t push it every play, is what I’m saying. Offensively in the half-court, play through [Julius] Randle and attack the boards. And they’ve certainly had some timely shooting lately. From a defensive standpoint, it’s guarding the 3-point line and in. They challenge shots around the rim. They ignite off blocks, deflections, long rebounds and they go.”

“They like to control the tempo. They do a great job of that. Offensive rebounding is huge. They may be first at offensive rebounding off their own free throws too. And they shoot a lot of free throws. They’re one of the biggest teams in the country. Your point guard is 6-5, two-guard is the same, the three is 6-7. Then Randle at the four is 6-9, and then whatever Dakari [Johnson] is. I think they prefer slow pace. They pick their points when they want to push it.”

“Transition. They want to get out in breaks for lobs. If you take transition away, you’ll get a floppy action where they set constant pin-downs for the three and four. At the end of shot clock, you’ll the spread pick and roll. They want to funnel you into the bigs on the defensive end. They use their length to bother you at the basket. When [Willie] Cauley-Stein was healthy, they can switch one through five.”

Offensive strength

“Offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. They got guys that just put their heads down and drive through your chest. The [Harrison] twins, Randle, and then a little bit with [James] Young. They’ll run right through you, and they change their angle at the last second. It’s not easy to do and it’s easy to foul. When they’re driving, it opens up rebounding lanes because you’re moving over to help. You’re not in normal box out responsibilities and they’re big and athletic, so they’re good at it. All hell breaks loose.”

“Offensive rebounding and they do a great job of spacing. They run a lot of iso plays. They can score against you one on one, and if they miss, they have a lot of guys who attack. They don’t shy away from contact, they don’t avoid it. They don’t do double-clutch layups, they go right into you.”

“Offensive rebounding. Their size and athleticism makes it hard. And their ability to draw fouls. They just draw contact. They initiate contact.”

Key player

“That’s an interesting question because you look at their starting five, and they’re all key. I would say for them to win, Young has to make some shots. Three-point shots. If he shoots 42 percent and makes seven or eight 3-point shots in two games, I think they could go all the way. They’re not a great outside shooting team, but you’ll have to do that in a two-game tournament.”

“I think it’s Aaron Harrison. He keeps the floor stretched if he’s hitting shots. James Young is a shooter, but the reason they’re in the Final Four, Harrison is shooting the ball at a high level. In the SEC tournament, he had some big games also. That’s the key for them. Julius is going to get a double-double no matter what, James Young gives you what he gives you, same with Andrew [Harrison]. Aaron has to be the guy that can score.”

“James Young. His ability to shoot the ball. It stretches the floor, because then you have to extend your defense and have to guard the 3. And that allows more driving lanes for the guards.”

Primary weakness

“Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury limits their protection at the rim. Dakari Johnson is not a protector at the rim. [Marcus] Lee came out of nowhere, out of witness protection, to get 10 points. Whether it’s a weakness or not, who knows. But it doesn’t help their defense. Shooting to me, any time we played Kentucky over the past few years, it’s been getting back and stopping the drive and hope they miss 3s. The percentages were on your side. That could be, and that’s why I said Young is their valuable piece. Depth and foul trouble could cause some problems. [Alex] Poythress is doing OK, but they’ve never been very deep.”

“Overall quickness. They’re not the quickest team. But I honestly don’t think it’s hurt them that much, because they control the tempo of the game. And then maybe transition.”

“Bench. They’re not very deep at the guard spot. Without Cauley-Stein, now you’re playing Marcus Lee extended minutes. He’s a good player, but he’s never had extended minutes. You’re talking about a guy who played two full college seasons; you’re going to need that experience.”

How to stop them

“As the defender, you have to be in the gaps when you’re not guarding the ball. You have to decide how you want to handle Randle. Are how are you going to come with double teams? From a guard? On the perimeter? He needs a double team. He’s been better with decision-making and shot selection. He’s improved, he’s made some good plays, kicking the ball out. You have to get back, keep the ball in front. But you’ve seen it, they drive right through your chest sometimes. Supporting the gap, don’t get split.”

“The biggest thing is help defense. Make them take contested shots, limit them to one shot. Face box out Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and the bigs. Your guards have to rebound. The twins don’t go as much, but Julius Randle cost us two people. Cauley-Stein did the best job of relocating when the shot goes up, but he’s hurt. But Lee does the same thing. Using his quickness to get around you to rebound. If you play zone, you’ll have a real hard time rebounding.”

“Keep them out of transition. You have to make those guys play in the half-court and not foul them. You determine your defense by your shot selection. You can’t have live-ball turnovers against these guys. Your positioning needs to be extremely good. Make them take tough twos. And no leak outs because you have to keep them off the glass. People think Kentucky is fast-paced, but they’ll have 20 or 30 possessions in the late shot clock. And prepping for those guys, you have to prepare for late shot clock and then get the rebound. You can’t lose the rebounding war against Kentucky and expect to beat them.”

Best way to score on them

“I think you have to try to explore in transition. They’re a good half-court defensive team, don’t think they’re great in transition. Losing Cauley-Stein’s protection at the rim is a factor. Move them side to side, try to drive them. They’re long, guys look at it and say, ‘Oh wow they’re long.’ I think you have to drive them, drive and kick. Don’t be afraid of their length. Can’t let them get all the defensive rebounds either, get on the boards and get your share of the offensive rebounds. And then challenge Dakari Johnson and get them in foul trouble if you have a guy who can do that.”

“Transition. They’re not very deep. They play some guys a lot of minutes. Beat them down for easy baskets. Ball movement. Moving without the ball. They sometimes get lost because they are young. They play hard, so sometimes they get tired. Cauley-Stein could guard one through five. And they’re not able to switch ball-screens one through five. He’s a high-energy guy, blocks shots, gets steals. It hurts, but if Lee steps in, that will be able to overcome it. ”

“Movement. Moving them around. They switch one through four. Burn them with ball movement and player movement. And they struggle to contain dribble penetration. It will be easier [to attack] with Dakari Johnson in there. But if I’m playing Kentucky, I’m putting James Young in pick and rolls, I’m putting Dakari Johnson in pick and rolls.”

Ultimate concern

“We always felt with Kentucky in the past, at some point in time, a zone would be disruptive to them. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Let’s throw a zone and see what happens. There are no glaring weaknesses on defense. You have to play harder than them. Play physically. It’s a mindset.”

“I think the biggest thing is you don’t realize how big they are. A lot of teams put down 6-6, 6-7, but when you get on the court, they’re not that size. But they really are that size. A lot of shots you normally get, you don’t get because of their length. When you go in the lane, the layups and floaters you’re used to shooting are being changed because of their length. Point guards aren’t used to shooting over a 6-6 point guard.”

“The one thing we kept hammering these guys with was shot selection, transition defense and ball movement. You can’t have bad possessions, you can’t have turnovers, you can’t have bad shots. They put so much pressure on you with their speed and athleticism. But you can’t play passive, you have to be smart.”

What’s changed?

“If you watched Kentucky throughout the year, they would implode and beat themselves. It was a half, then a 10-minute period, then a six-minute period. But now they don’t beat themselves anymore. Florida is the only team to beat them lately. That’s what’s been impressive to me. They would beat themselves or let teams back in games during the season because they would go through a spell of six or seven minutes, driving [John] Calipari crazy, guys going in and out. And as they got better, I don’t think they beat themselves anymore. And it could rear its head in Dallas, but that to me is why they’re better.”

“Their confidence. Their body language is totally different. When they make a mistake, their body language was bad. SEC tournament and on, their body language is totally different. They’re a different team. They’ve come together and bought in and they’re not fighting the coaches anymore.”

“They’re playing with much more confidence. The guard play is better. But the thing you have to think about is that the teams playing against them in the tournament have never played them. Besides Louisville. Wichita State and Michigan hadn’t seen a team with their length and athleticism. SEC teams knew exactly what they needed to do to beat them. They knew you couldn’t let them beat you off the bounce. It’s that small prep time and getting ready for all the things they do well.”


“I would say Randle. That’s where they would like to start, let him fan it out. They run these very simple plays, where they get Randle at the ball at the top and let him drive it. From 12 feet off the lane and let him get into the lane. They have a half-dozen sets and quick-hitters where they get him the ball. We tried to deny his catches outside the 3-point line. And teams aren’t going to double all the way out there. He puts stress on your defense.”

“I think it’s Aaron. He’s able to create a shot. From 3 or mid-range. Randle, most guys will be satisfied if he’s taking a jumper. You can pack it in if he gets the ball and make someone else make a play. Aaron can handle it and get his own shot from anywhere, which is tough to guard.”

“I would have said Julius Randle, but lately, I would say Aaron Harrison.”

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