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Looking Ahead for the Battle of the Bluegrass: UK

Which UK Team will Show Up?

“We’re the youngest team in the country, folks!”

That could be on John Calipari’s Hall of Fame plaque. It’s the evil twin to seeing his veterans get gobbled up on NBA draft night.

And so, once again, Kentucky is an unformed mass of individual cells trying to form into a functioning organism. Talented athletes who must develop team cohesiveness, and must do it on the job!

While Calipari sets the NCAA tournament as his goal, the Louisville game is always a formidable challenge because it comes early enough in the season when the cohesiveness hasn’t necessarily taken place.

And then there’s the rivalry.

History of Game

Do the two Hall of Fame coaches really hate each other? Who knows?

Calipari downplays any vendetta. Regardless, in the six seasons since he came on the scene, against his early-career role model Rick Pitino, these two national powers have won two NCAA championships and made six Final Four appearances between them, only amping up the intensity.

Wall. Siva. Davis. Smith. Randle. Dieng. Towns. Harrell. What more could you want?

The success of the programs, the passion of the fan bases, the natural geographic rivalry. You can have Tobacco Road. Call this one Bourbon and Water.

Certainly for Kentucky, it’s a pre-SEC indication of just how good the season will be. And, in fact, the only time Calipari lost this game, his team failed to make the NCAA cut – and Louisville won the national title.

Strengths

You never know what you’ll get, from game to game, with this UK team.

At its best, it runs a quick ball-movement offense keyed by its three-headed backcourt – especially its capo, the remarkable Tyler Ulis.

At its best, it has competent-enough outside shooting to keep defenses honest and enough bodies to battle for rebounds. Alex Poythress is finding his way back, baseline drives and monster dunks. Marcus Lee has great moments of shot-blocking and rebounding.

The guards provide good work on the boards and on 50-50 balls. They hawk the ball and force turnovers. And when you turn the ball over against Kentucky, you’re in a footrace.

While Skal Labissiere was supposed to be the jewel in the recruiting crown, Isaiah Briscoe may turn out to be the gemstone. Question his judgment, sometimes, but never his mindset. He wants your throat.

Weaknesses

You never know what you’ll get, from game to game, with this UK team.

At its worst, it lacks a strong post presence, made much worse when the team cannot seem to buy a three – which has been the case way too often for a team that has shooters like Ulis, Jamal Murray and Derek Willis.

Its lack of inside strength is especially harmful on the defensive boards, where one mediocre opponent after another has an Hakeem Olajuwon night (see Duke’s Marshall Plumlee, UCLA’s Thomas Welsh).

There must be a way to take advantage of Labissiere’s strengths, especially his silky moves and sweet shooting touch. Mostly, though, he’s been a liability, unable to establish a post presence, unable to block out, unable to keep from fouling.

One of the problems is that he’s one of the better UK foul shooters. At the end of close games, when you need him on the floor with people like Murray, Ulis and Poythress, he’s on the bench and other teams are fouling Lee and Briscoe.

Key Players

Calipari has three essential demands: play 30 seconds of defense on every possession, rebound strongly with both hands and dive for loose balls.

The progression of players lining up at the scorer’s table, shuttling in and out, suggests how hard it is to do all those things and remain on the floor.

Willis, Charles Matthews, Mychal Muldar, Dominique Hawkins, Isaac Humphries – all bring the Rupp crowd to its feet during games but just as frequently seem to displease their coach.

So the key player is anyone who contributes off the bench. (Also, by the way, the home crowd, the 23,000 crazy Ruppies.)

What does UK need to do to win the game?

Bench contribution is just one of the keys. Making free throws, reducing turnovers, hitting outside shots, remaining competitive on the boards, staying out of foul trouble – sure, that’s a basketball primer for any team, but this team’s margin for error seems slighter.

If Kentucky can limit Louisville’s threes and turn them into fast break opportunities. If Kentucky can hold its own on the boards, at both ends. If Murray finds his shooting stroke. If Poythress continues to feel healthy and confident. If Murray, Briscoe and Ulis penetrate.

And if Skal…just if…! VT