Know Thy Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 30: Brandon Knight  of the Kentucky Wildcats watches the game with Head Coach John Calipari during the game against the Boston University Terriers on November 30, 2010 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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!

  • James

    Last year we were in big trouble but i dont know about this year. ive watched more than a few kentucky games due to my roomate and while very talented, they are also very beatable. I think we have more talent than ND and they were in it for 3/4 of the game…in kentucky. If the Hoosiers come out strong (without a week-off hangover) I think we could make a game of this one.

  • JerryCT

    Well, it is all about match ups isn’t it.

    They have:

    + a home court advantage
    + a raw personnel advantage
    + a scheduling advantage
    + a “go to” player advantage

    The matchups do not look good. Liggins on VJ3, Knight on Hulls, 6”7″ Miller on Creek, Jones on CW.

    We have a team experience advantage but so far this year I see no player , scheme or team stat that would tell me what we can realistically exploit without a big surprise performance on our part.

    So where is the IU surprise ?

    ND zoned them and KY moved the ball pretty well against it but did not shoot too well. Jones camped in the high post where he was hard to handle. Is our zone as good as ND’s ? I doubt it and we often put Hulls on the baseline w CW out high.

    KY does not seem to screen real well but Knight,Miller,Jones,Lamb etc only need a brief look to score

    ND scored at times on the high screen and roll ( ie Cooley ). But we do not even look at the roller. However on offense this needs to change anyway so hopefully this is the game to do it

    I think I agree about man-to-man defense as a key component but to me this means a heavy dose of Rivers , VO, WS getting some serious PT with one or more starting so we do not play double digit catch up in front of their crowd

  • Tberry

    Sounds like they are beatable but so are we. I’m afraid that we are more beatable than UK.

  • Anonymous

    Probably you are right.

  • Anonymous

    Call me cautiously pessimistic. If it were a home game I’d feel pretty good about it. But playing in the fetid bowels of that festering rat hole that is Kentucky? Tough, especially considering the way IU played at BC. Let’s hope they’ve grown from that experience. The fact that interior play is the key to beating these guys doesn’t bode well either….but we certainly match-up much better then last season, and wouldn’t be near the upset that beating Pitt was either.

  • Anonymous

    Depth will be the key. Make the game physical not up-tempo. Then Pritchard plus Capo= Harrellson and Vargas (10 fouls to 10, equal); Watford plus Elston=Jones (10 fouls to 5, advantage IU); Hulls plus Rivers= Knight (10 fouls to 5, advantage IU); Creek plus Oladipo=Lamb (10 fouls to 5, advantage IU); Jones plus Sheehey=Liggins plus Miller (10 fouls to 10, advantage KY); what’s left: Roth, Moore, Howard=Poole, Hood, Polson (experience IU vs talent KY, at home, advantage KY). IU needs to hit a lot of 3′s at a high % to win.

  • Kelin OlaHarrispo

    Jerry……you have a way to bring me into an indepth debate…..

    I think some of KY’s advantages you listed are on our side…
    + a home court advantage…given KY
    + a raw personnel advantage….I think personnel wise, it is in IU’s favor if you go position by position and include bench.
    + a scheduling advantage
    + a “go to” player advantage…. Yes Kentucky has one, I think IU has 2.5, VJ, Watford, and Creek with confidence. I can also make the case Victor is not afraid to take some big shots

    The Match Ups….
    G Knight v Hulls….Even….Hulls is playing with confidence and is more aggressive now. Don’t be surprised if he puts up some shots saturday. KY had no answer for Hanbroughs shooting

    G D. Miller v Jones…VJ will figure out how to attack Millers length and get some guys in foul trouble.
    G Liggins v Creek….Even
    F Jones v Watford….Even
    C Harrelson v Elston….Elston will have to block out Harrelson big time, but if he can be aggressive on offense it will help IU

    Bench
    Lamb, Vargas, and Hood vs. Sheehey, Oladipo, Moore, Rivers, Capo, Pritch (advantage IU)

    My end result is an mild upset….IU wins on the road

  • http://www.vccm.net/ iubase

    Jerry – good synopsis. VO needs to play consistent and Rivers needs a ton of minutes. If Creek and Watford can score and we hit the threes then we could be in the game – but I am looking for a moral victory here. If we can keep it close till the last 5 minutes than I will be happy – since next year we will be HOME, have the experience of another year, and now have similary talent. Look for a victory in 11, and 12 and watch KU turn blue (as in depressed)..

  • IUVoice

    Kelin, I like your passion for I.U., but you just became Kelin IUblindersonpo with that analysis. Knight vs Hulls not even. Jones vs Watford not even. Unfortunately, Kentucky wins this year.

  • HoosierFromCT

    let’s be realistic people. UK will win. But we should stay in it most of the game.

  • Kelin OlaHarrispo

    IUVoice…..if you consider first what each player does for their team, it is even, despite Knight scoring more, but Hulls doing more other stuff for IU. Why I call it even, is based on Hulls play this year, his consistency, and how he has been more aggressive this year. Hulls has played well against scoring guards since h.s. so Knight brings nothing new to the table.

    Watford v Jones, both kids good rebounders, both kids can put points on the board, both kids have good size. Defensively they are ok and both have a decent back to the basket game. They cancel each other out easily.

  • Anonymous

    If VO and JR don’t play more I’m going to lose it. I was going crazy during the BC game watching Creek getting torn up by Reggie Jackson

  • Anonymous

    It’s those turnovers, mostly unforced, but it’s those da*n turnovers that haunt’s us.

  • JerryCT

    It will be fun to do an autopsy of the game and see what if anything any of us got right and what the surprises were. I don’t mind being wrong if we win ……………..but Hulls on the baseline in the zone ?????????? ………..they score there and we lose ??????????? ….then I am upset

    I am smelling a DE surprise.

  • Aceman_Mujezinovic_07

    I know this opponent . . . .

    They are a bunch of low-down, dirty scoundrels who love the fact that they have the shadiest coach in the country because they’ll win at all cost!

    I HATE KENTUCKY!!!!

  • Anonymous

    If Hulls runs the point we have an outside chance. If VJ (and I do love VJ) runs the point we have no chance. Hulls makes everything run alot smoother. Need Watford and someone else to have monster game, such as Andre Patterson vs. Duke in pre-season NIT. Anything short of that and we will all be glad when its over. I Hate kentucky!

    GO IU!!!!!!!!!!!

  • JerryCT

    Reminds me of the Allman Bros “Low Down Dirty Mean” …………”the way you been treatin’ me , beats all I ever seen “

  • Anonymous

    Don’t know that CW can be called a good rebounder this year, or at least not so far this year. I really love your positive thinking but I believe you are reaching a little bit in some of your comparisons. The key to being able to beat them seems to rest pretty much solely in having a good inside game and I don’t think I have to remind anybody that that is where we are the most deficient at.

    Having said that I hope with all my heart you are right and I am 100 % wrong cause nobody hates them more than I.

    This game will show why:

    + Why Guy was recruited and why he probably would have been getting major minutes immediately and if he wasn’t a starter right off the bat then shortly thereafter.
    + The most glaring need is our inside game
    + and last but not least why CTC was willing to take a chance in recruiting Guy. Yes we need help in at the 5 that bad.

  • Anonymous

    Not near as much as me.

  • Anonymous

    Fouls. That’s where IU can win this game. Get UK in foul trouble, because they aren’t deep, especially on the front line. Now, that would require referees to call fouls ON UK IN Rupp Arena, which isn’t usually a common occurrence.

  • Anonymous

    Hate is such a strong word. There are things I’ll admit I would hate— losing everything I own in a house fire; affixing my forehead to the wall with a Passlode; not having enough oxygen, food, or water to live; things like that.
    I’d have to say, however, that my feelings for UK go so far beyond those things that I don’t have words to adequately describe the sensation I get at the sheer mention of the school, the coach, and the fans.

  • JerryCT

    Marcus ? Did you leave out not having enough beer and pepto bismol on purpose ?

  • Aceman_Mujezinovic_07

    Classic response marcus!!!!

  • Aceman_Mujezinovic_07

    My prediction is this:

    1) If IU gets out of the gate better and has a solid start then we play with and possibly upset pUKe.

    2) If IU gets out of the gate much like it has in the previous 8 games then pUKe beats us by 20+.

    3) If DE has a real good game then IU beats pUKe.

    4) If DE is non-existent and we only rely on VJ3, CW, Hulls, & Mo then we get beat by 20.

    In other words, IU can’t afford to have a slow start again (plus a quick start puts pressure on their young, inexperienced players) and IU has to have at least one extra scoring threat today, preferably from down low!

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