To help give us some perspective on this year’s Kentucky Wildcats, Inside the Hall reached out to our good friend — former Indiana Daily Student editor in chief Rick Newkirk — to answer five questions on John Calipari’s squad. (Newkirk now works as a sports copy editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He also follows the Wildcats as closely as anyone I know, unfortunately.) With that said, let’s get down to business.
Kentucky’s schedule early on has been aggressive. Games in Maui against Washington and UConn, at UNC and a neutral court game with Notre Dame. Overall, how is this team responding to the challenge through its first eight games?
The UConn game was the real challenge, and no one aside from Jones really showed up or responded to Connecticut’s early push. Kemba Walker did to the Cats what John Wall and Eric Bledsoe did to everyone last year, and Brandon Knight just laid an egg. DeAndre Liggins hasn’t really shown the lockdown defense he was known for last year, although he’s developed his three-point shot, and he had no success at all guarding a much faster Walker. That game exposed UK’s weaknesses, and the Cats never really showed any fight to get back into it. They’ve shown improvement since, though, and the second half against Notre Dame was the first time I’ve seen UK really respond to a challenge. Ben Hansbrough lit the Cats up for 19 in the first half, including five threes, but he missed all five of his shots in the second half and looked miserable. It wasn’t really a neutral court, though — Freedom Hall now has a permanent UK paint job, and pretty much all of the 17,000 fans there were wearing blue. But if that game was any indication, UK might be figuring out how to play through adversity.
The Wildcats had five first round draft picks on last year’s team. Obviously, that number isn’t going to be replicated, but does this year’s team have the camaraderie and talent to produce similar results to last year’s team?
It doesn’t have the talent, and it doesn’t have the camaraderie yet, but it has the potential to produce similar results — if Enes Kanter becomes eligible. Jones is similar to Patrick Patterson last year, only he’s more athletic and more versatile. Knight is playing point guard, so he draws comparisons to Wall, but he’s much slower and doesn’t really distribute the ball well. The one thing he does better than Wall is shoot, and considering that was the Achilles heel that kept UK out of the Final Four last year, it’s not such a bad strength to have. Lamb is the second-banana guard, but as Knight is to Wall, Doron Lamb is much slower than Bledsoe but a better scorer. The missing piece is who can fill Demarcus Cousins’ role, and that would have been Kanter. He reportedly owned Jared Sullinger in the summer, and while he plays somewhat below the rim for a 7-footer and maybe isn’t the dominant scorer Cousins was, he would fill UK’s biggest gap in the frontcourt. It’s a long shot to get him back, though, and without him UK is really lacking depth and would have to get some lucky breaks to make a run in March. An Elite Eight isn’t out of the question, but I don’t expect a Final Four appearance.
Let’s talk a little bit about Terrence Jones. He’s played as well as anyone in the country through the season’s first month. Can he keep up this torrid pace for the duration of the season? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
I don’t see any reason why he can’t keep up this pace, unless he just decides not to. He moves amazingly well for a 6-8 guy and handles the ball as well as Knight or Lamb. He’s a great fit for the dribble-drive because he likes to create from the outside, and if he gets the ball 19 feet away he can take his man off the dribble, post up and take a turnaround jumper or step back and shoot a three. The only time he’s been stopped this year was when he fell asleep against North Carolina. He literally took a nap before the game, against Calipari’s wishes, and came out lethargic. He shot 3 for 17 in that game and was dominated by John Henson and then Tyler Zeller, once UK’s big men Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas got in foul trouble and Jones had to move to the 5. That could be the one thing that holds Jones back — he doesn’t have great big-man skills, and with UK already shallow in the frontcourt, if he has to fill the center too much he could be a liability on defense.
Brandon Knight will no doubt get compared to other point guards Calipari has coached like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall. Knight appears to be less explosive than those guys but perhaps a better scorer and shooter. How has the production from the point guard position changed with Wall’s departure and Knight’s arrival?
The great thing about having John Wall on your team was that in a close game, a UK fan never really worried because there was no one in America who could stop Wall when he set his mind to it. Not even Walker could match him last year, and the UConn game was one of about seven Wall just took over late, slashing to the rim at will, hitting clutch shots, whatever. Knight isn’t the same guy. He’s a cerebral person, but it hasn’t translated into making all the best decisions and running the team as a true point guard. He’s still very much a scorer (he has a much better three-point stroke than Wall) and can finish nearly as well once he gets to the rim, but he can’t beat guys off the dribble the way Wall did. Wall truly ran the team last year, but Knight is more just another guy trying to get shots off. He knows he needs to learn how to get other guys involved, and I think he will eventually. But for now you don’t really have the confidence in him you had in Wall, and it makes for a lot more nervous moments.
What are a couple things the Hoosiers could try to exploit?
The one thing you have to remember is that UK is basically seven guys deep: Knight, Lamb, Darius Miller, Jones, Harrellson, Liggins and Vargas. There are three other guys on the bench (Jon Hood, Stacey Poole and Jarrod Polson), but they combine for about 30 seconds a game. And when Harrellson or Vargas — or both — get in foul trouble, it means major changes for UK’s alignment. Jones moves to the 5, Miller, a 6-7 guard, has to play power forward, and against a team with any kind of post presence, that’s a huge problem. Unless Jones learns to hold his ground and body up with bigger guys and play the post, the lack of depth is really going to show in the frontcourt. So if Pritchard and Watford can get Harrellson in foul trouble, that’s really when the ball of yarn starts to unravel.
IU should also stick to a man-to-man defense. The few times teams have gone to a zone against Kentucky, they’ve been burned over the top. It worked last year, but this year’s team so far is terrific at threes. If the Hoosiers can keep Jones and Knight from penetrating and shut down Lamb’s long-range shot, that doesn’t leave many offensive options for the Cats.
Thanks Alex, and I hope everyone enjoys the game!