It's not just a joke. I mean, it is -- at least as far as I'm concerned -- but Kentucky As NBA Team is an actual thing people talk about. Non-ironically. ESPN recently paired Jay Bilas and John Goodman to debate whether the Wildcats could beat the NBA's worst team, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Kentucky Wildcats are not as good as an NBA team -- not even one trying as hard to suck as the Sixers -- but for present purposes it's quite enough to acknowledge that we're talking about a team so rich in blue blood talent that people are naturally inclined to evaluate it as a franchise of the professional league in which most of its roster will soon play.
So, yeah: Kentucky is loaded. You knew that. Everyone knows that.
Let's just cut to the chase, then: Can Texas win this game?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: Yes... but it's a serious longshot.
Size vs SIZE
Kentucky's roster of giants is longer than the rosters of 28 of 32 NBA teams. Which is ridiculous. In Texas they'll face the closest thing to a peer that they've faced all season... and they still make us look pretty average in terms of size.
If you were wondering when might be an ideal time for Cam Ridley to awaken from his slumber and join his teammates for the season, I'm going to go ahead and suggest that his presence might be appreciated this evening.
If you've been following college basketball much this year, you know that Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been playing his team in two distinct 5-man rotations. As in, the starters are relieved en masse by the second unit, who would be a first unit on most every other team. This Kentucky squad has taken "10 deep" to a different level.
The Longhorns are an undefeated, top-ranked team thanks to their high-elite play on the defensive end of the floor. In category after category, Texas' defense has been spectacular: Opponents have an effective field goal percentage of just 35.1% on the season (#3 nationally), having made just 31.8% of their shots taken inside the arc (#2 nationally), with a full 26.7% of their shots at the rim getting swatted away by a Longhorn (#2 nationally).
As great as Texas' defense has been, Kentucky's has been even better. Effective field goal percentage? 32.3% (#1 nationally). Opponent field goal percentage on 2-point shots? 32.3% (#1). Percentage of opponent shots at the rim blocked? 26.9% (#1).
Texas may have a 3.9 GPA on the defensive end this season. Kentucky is the valedictorian.
One more thing before we move on: listen to people talk about how to play Kentucky and you'll always hear about the need to get out and run so you can find some points in transition, because they're just so hard to come by in the halfcourt. It's absolutely true, and it's a key element for Texas this evening, as well.
But here's what maybe impresses me the most about this Kentucky team: even their biggest vulnerability offers opponents just a sliver of opportunity. This group of Wildcats doesn't just defend well when they're set in the halfcourt; they play hard and defend vigorously any time the opponent gets their hands on the basketball. Opponents want to score on Kentucky in transition, and the Wildcats simply won't allow it: opponents have managed just 15.9% of their shots in transition (23rd lowest rate nationally), and aren't even effective when they do find shots to take, making a meager 34.5% of their transition field goals (6th lowest rate nationally).
When you're looking at the Wildcats defense, things look pretty damn bleak, but you'll find that it's not totally hopeless when you flip the court and look at Kentucky's offense. UK is not a bad offensive team. Far, far from it. They are a highly effective offense, following a formula that several of Rick Barnes' best teams have on the offensive end: minimize possessions lost to turnover, miss lots of shots, go absolutely hog wild on the offensive glass, convert all your shots at the rim. Yup, that'll work. Let's be real: there's no "bad" way to score 1.2 points per possession.
That being said, this Kentucky team is mediocre shooting the ball outside the paint, and Texas presents the rare opponent with the size to compete with UK on the glass, potentially robbing the 'Cats of an essential element to their offensive success. The Horns are allowing opponents an extra opportunity on just 27.4% of their possessions, 57th nationally. Better yet, they're playing suffocating defense and controlling the defensive glass without fouling. For those of you scoring at home, it's easy to see that there's not much left for opponents when they can't make shots, offensive boards are hard to come by, and there aren't many trips to the free throw line. If Texas manages another outstanding performance across those three elements again on Friday night, they'll absolutely have a chance to compete for a win.
Keys to the Game & Prediction
Hey, since they're playing NBA guys, maybe we can suit up KD for the night? That's fair, no? Hello?
Okay, I don't think it's going to work. We're on our own. How can we win this thing?
1. Run the floor. Both ways. I've already mentioned the need to find some offense in transition, where Kentucky is merely stingy on defense -- a huge improvement over the halfcourt, which is defended like Ft. Knox. No less important -- in many ways, even more important -- will be Texas' own transition defense. Because if the 'Cats get rolling in the open floor, turn off the television, put on a helmet, and go crouch in the bath tub. Weep a little, if you need to - no shame in that. Whatever you do, stay away from that destruction.
2. Handle ball pressure. Kentucky's guards are long and Calipari has them exerting aggressive ball pressure. Aha! You've walked into our trap! For Isaiah Taylor will punish your aggress... Oh. Wait. F*ck. So it's gonna be Felix, Yancy, and Holland running the point against these monsters? Gulp.
This worries me. A lot. I don't have a ton of confidence in our guards to run effective halfcourt offense against oversized guards living in their jock. Piercing Kentucky's defense requires an offense to utilize great spacing, quick passing, hard cutting, and punishing outside shooting. Like, if we could transmorph into the Spurs for a game, we'd be in great shape. That's at least plausible-ish with Taylor available to slice and dice. Without him? I honestly don't know. We'll need to be poised and at our absolute best, that's for sure. If we win tonight, Holland continued his tremendous play and Yancy and Felix both had their best games of the year.
3. Pray for Towns' mercy. Aaaand there it is: bullet point #3 and we've hit the "pray for mercy" portion of the game plan. For my money, Karl-Anthony Towns might be the best player in college basketball. He's got a 7'3" wingspan and weighs 250 pounds, but is somehow light on his feet with soft hands and fluid body motion. And he's a through and through basketball player. There are lots of elite athletes on Kentucky's roster, but Towns is an elite basketball player, no less savvy, instinctive, or clever as J'Covan Brown. If the Philadelphia 76ers are tanking for a top draft pick, Towns should be the reason why.
There's no silver bullet here -- just a challenge that requires our frontcourt to step up in a big way. We could use 15-20 minutes of great defensive basketball from Prince Ibeh tonight.
4. Minutes for Myles. Our most important player for this match up will be on the sideline wearing a cast, which in my eyes elevates Myles Turner to the top spot. A good case can be made for Jonathan Holmes and I certainly won't argue with anyone who insists, but for this particular match up I just think whatever small chance we have of pulling an upset turns on what that kid is able to do for us. He's so subtly advanced in his game that I'm not surprised most scouts totally projected him as more of a project-in-the-making. But he's our best screen and roll guy, he can extend the defense to 20 feet, his shot blocking instincts are just silly, and I'm having a blast watching him rapidly learn how to earn trips to the free throw line. He's a quick study, and he loves to compete. If I were going to lose my mind and predict a Texas win tonight, an enormous part of it would be because I love the tone that Turner helps set for this team. He's a natural leader, and he and his teammates may get overwhelmed by this talented Kentucky team tonight, but it won't be because they were afraid to compete.
5. Do what we do well. I mentioned this when talking about Kentucky's scant vulnerabilities, but outside of the mystical stuff that it's fine to pray for but isn't going to happen ("Wear down Kentucky's frontcourt in the paint!"), our best bet is to really excel in the areas where we're most capable, and hope those deliver enough value to produce a win. What are we good at?
Team defense: we need to work together to keep Kentucky from clean looks near the rim and force the Cats to be jump shooters.
Limit fouls: make Kentucky earn their points the hard way.
Defend in transition: same thing.
One and done: limit second chance opportunities for the Wildcats and take away a core element of their offense.
Outlet-and-go: get into offense as quickly as possible and don't be shy about taking looks early in the shot clock when they're there. The longer the possession goes on, the higher the difficulty to score.
Those are the things this group does well, and no miracle is required for us to perform well in those regards against Kentucky. If we lose, we want it to be because their advantages outnumbered ours, not because we fell apart in the key areas where we're supposed to thrive. Some of it's a zero sum game -- Texas can't be great on the defensive glass if Kentucky is great on the offensive glass, for instance -- but it is possible for both teams to generally play well and to their strengths, and there's no shame in losing if that were to occur.
Prediction: So do you have confidence that we're ready to be our best against such a stiff challenge? Do you think we're ready to compete for a win tonight? Even without Zay?
I have to admit, there's a nagging little voice in my head that is chanting Myles Turner at me, wanting to make me go full blown emotional optimist, causing me to squint and look for that narrow road to a Texas victory....
And I can't see it. My view is entirely blocked by an endless loop of replays of our offense wilting amidst Kentucky's length and perimeter pressure, as turnovers mount, and the roar in Rupp grows and grows with each successive bucket in transition. I squint, and I don't see a Texas victory. I see myself in a bathtub, helmet on, weeping mildly while I wait for the destruction to pass.
I'll hope to be wrong and won't put it past Turner and Holmes to anchor this team in rough waters, but my expectations are in check. Kentucky keeps its crown, 72-58.
Texas at Kentucky | 6:00 pm | ESPN