Much like Duke last season, Kentucky basketball was supposed to be a year away from making a Final Four run, especially after Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible. The Wildcats lack a true blow-by point guard and a credible post threat, not to mention they're the youngest team in the March Madness field of 68. Fortunately for Big Blue Nation, the pundits underestimate Coach Calipari's coaching acumen when making their predictions, while opponents of the Wildcats do so at their own peril.
Say what you want to say about the controversial UK coach. Lament his recruiting tactics, criticize his one and done philosophy of building a program, but don't discount the fact that Coach Cal can flat out coach. Whether he's coaching superstars or journeymen players, Cal gets the best out of his teams on both ends of the floor, especially the defensive end. This Calipari coached club is no different. They are choc-full of McDonald's all-Americans and future NBA players, yet they still guard like a group of Div II overachievers who'll be driving UPS trucks four years from now.
On their path to Houston, the Wildcats have vanquished the full spectrum of College basketball teams and styles. To recap, they've out-smarted a slow it down squad in Princeton, out-bludgeoned a WVU team known for toughness, out- worked the best front court in America in North Carolina, and then out-lasted what was once thought to be the best overall team in the country in Ohio State. You won't find a more treacherous road to Houston so it stands to reason that the Wildcats have one of the game's best navigators.
Players to Watch
Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are the Wildcats two best players. Knight's range allows him to be a threat the second he crosses half court, but his ability to hit the big shot at the end of games is what makes the freshman guard uniquely dangerous. The enigmatic Jones has all the talent in the world as a hybrid forward. If he's on his game, he's as versatile as they come, taking big forwards out beyond the arc or posting up smaller defenders in the paint. If he's in the right frame of mind, he's a mismatch for most every team he faces.
Perhaps the most important player to the Wildcats down the tournament stretch has been Josh Harrellson. The unheralded senior center has played out of his mind in the last two weeks. Harrellson provided a huge spark off the bench in Kentucky's second round meeting against WVU, played Ohio State's POY candidate Jared Sullinger to a stalemate, and then topped it off by having a terrific game against UNC's monster front court in the regional final. Harrellson's play has been outstanding from a production standpoint, but his presence on the floor has been a godsend for Terrence Jones because it allows the talented freshman forward to float away from the bucket and be his dynamic self.
There's not another team in America that relies more on one player than Connecticut does with Kemba Walker. Naturally, any Husky scouting report worth its salt will be predicated on defending Kemba Walker. The explosive UConn lead guard can get his shot whenever he needs to which is a disconcerting factoid in its own right. Recently, oh let's call it right around the start of the Big East tournament, Kemba Walker started to find shots for his talented freshman cohorts Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. The scary news for opponents is that the first year duo is now doing some heavy lifting and knocking down shots taking pressure off of Kemba. Make no mistake, Kentucky has its work cut out for it guarding the perimeter if all three of these players come to play.
If there is a defensive reprieve for the Wildcats, it's in the front court. Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu don't possess the skilled back to the basket post game that will keep Calipari up at night. Look for UK's frontcourt of Jones and Harrellson to be the primary source of help to drivers and ball screens knowing that UConn is unlikely to punish mismatches in the post.
On the other end, Terrence Jones has to be salivating after watching fellow power forward Derrick Williams of Arizona obliterate UConn's bigs. Look for Jones to pull either Oriakhi or Okwandu away from the bucket to create space for Knight, Lamb, and Miller to slash to the bucket and kick to shooters in Calipari's dribble drive motion attack.
One team has talent and depth, the other team has Kemba Walker. Not to oversimplify the game, but it is going to boil down to how the Wildcats handle Walker. They'll need to throw bodies at the player of the year candidate and take away the "easy money" buckets Kemba Walker has killed teams with in the tournament. Coach Cal has to find a way to get the ball out of Walker's hands and make UConn's freshman pick up the scoring slack, then hope the stage is too big for Napier and Lamb.
On the other end, UConn has defensive holes in their front court for Jones and Knight to exploit. Will they have the patience? I know I can't wait to find out.