Thursday, January 29, 2015

S. Carolina 43 - 58 Kentucky (No. 2,159)

OK, I want you to ask yourself:  Are you enjoying this season as much as you should?  You don't get too many teams like this one.  I'll give you an example.  The other day folks on the Kentucky message board were arguing about whether the 2010 Wildcats (with Wall and Cousins) could beat this year's squad.  Here's the relevant data from Ken Pomeroy:

2010 Wildcats:
Offensive Efficiency:  111.7 (27th in the country)
Defensive Efficiency:  88.0 (5th)

2015 Wildcats (so far):
Offensive Efficiency:  114.9 (16th in the country)
Defensive Efficiency:  80.2 (1st)

On paper, at least, this year's team is quite a bit better than a team that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Patrick Patterson.  That's how well these kids have played.

Here are some other facts to keep in mind about this year's team:

In six SEC games, the Cats have made 43.9 percent of their three-point shots.
In SEC play, the Cats have made 73.1 percent of their free throws.
In SEC play, the Cats' opponents are shooting less than 40 percent from two-point range.

These are statistics that you don't normally see even from very good teams.

Now let's talk about South Carolina.  The Gamecocks were 1-4 in SEC play going into Saturday's game, but that record was driven by three close losses that could have gone the other way.  Earlier this year, South Carolina crushed a good Oklahoma State team 75-49, and the Gamecocks beat Iowa St. (currently 5-2 in a strong Big XII) on a neutral court.  In short, this is a solid squad coached by a guy who took Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament four times in five years.  Plus they were playing in front of their first sell-out crowd since UK came to town in 2011.  And with 4:03 left in the first half, they led UK 24-23.  The place was going nuts.

And then Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker happened.

I've already written quite a bit about both of these players, especially Ulis.  But Devin Booker is my favorite type of player, a true shooting guard with a nose for the basket.  As a fan, I'm an offense-first sort of guy -- if I could coach, my teams would probably struggle to defend, but they would be able to shoot.  Of course, this is not actually a good strategy for college basketball -- you're better off to build a rugged defense and then try to grind out the points you need.  (Just ask UConn.)  So the Cats tend to play a lot of guards who are strong and athletic -- but who are somewhat challenged in the shooting department.  Any time we get a player who can really shoot -- Travis Ford, Tony Delk, Jeff Shepherd, Tayshaun Prince, Doron Lamb -- that guy goes on my list of favorite Wildcats.

(Here's an aside.  I constantly overrate the chances of teams that can shoot.  I was a great believer in the 1993-94 Wildcats, which featured both Ford and Delk.  That squad averaged almost 87 points per game, and beat two Final Four teams (Arkansas and Florida) to win the SEC Tournament.  But in the second round of the tournament, they went 10-38 (!) from three-point range, and lost to Marquette.  I was a big believer in the 2000-01 team, which Prince, Keith Bogan and Gerald Fitch.  They scored only 24 points against USC in the first half of their Sweet 16 game, and lost to USC 80-76.)

Anyway, Booker can really shoot.  But he likes to score in other ways as well.  He's the best Wildcat in terms of finishing on a run-out.  He's a great free throw shooter.  He can make that little jump shot from the baseline.  He can draw fouls.  He always seems to be thinking about how to score.  And so, for me, he is a joy to watch.  With the Gamecocks up 24-23 in the first half, here's what he and Ulis did:

1.  With 3:33 left, Ulis stole the ball and got a layup.  (UK leads 25-24)
2.  With 3:06 left, Booker is fouled and makes two FT's.  (UK leads 27-24)
3.  With 2:39 left, Ulis grabbed a layup and threw a long outlet pass to a racing Booker, who dunked the ball (UK leads 29-24) (This was one of my favorite plays of the year).
4.  A few minutes later, Ulis made two free throws to cap off an 11-0 run and give UK a 34-24 lead.

And with that, the game was basically over.  UK continued to play excellent defense, holding the exhausted Gamecocks to only 19 points after the break.  Meanwhile, the Cats were more interested in running out the clock than running up the score.  Time after time, UK would easily beat South Carolina's press -- only to hold the ball instead of attacking the basket.  There was one moment of inspired brilliance, where Ulis broke into the middle of the Gamecock defense, and then made a pass that seemed to go through most of the South Carolina team to find Booker, all by himself in the far corner.  Booker then made a three pointer.  This was another of my favorite plays of the year.

But for the most part, UK just rode its defense and waited for the game to end.  SC never got close again, and the Cats had another solid victory.

19-0.  6-0 in the SEC.  12 games left.

This week, the Cats play two teams that they have already beaten -- Missouri and Alabama.  We will hope for two more wins.

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