It’s late January and you know what that means: A John Calipari-coached team is starting to turn a corner. Crazy, I know. Yet along with Tom Brady and the Patriots making the Super Bowl, it really is the most predictable thing we see this time of year. You can basically set your watch to it.
Still, for as good as Kentucky has played over the last three weeks (and they’ve been phenomenal), the Wildcats will once again face a tough test when they welcome the ninth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks to town on Saturday. At 16-3 overall and 4-2 in their last six games, this isn’t a vintage Kansas team destined for a No. 1 seed and deep NCAA Tournament run. But it is still a truly good squad capable of coming into Rupp Arena and getting a win if Kentucky isn’t ready to go on Saturday (which honestly shouldn’t be an issue).
So what will it take to beat Kansas on Saturday? Well, I’m glad you asked. For the last two big games on Kentucky’s schedule (North Carolina and Auburn), I’ve called up an opposing coach who has faced Kentucky’s opponent, and had them give a scouting report on what the Wildcats can expect when they take the court. And since it worked out so well (Kentucky is 2-0 in those games) and it’s clear that John Calipari is in fact reading them and hanging on my every word (I’m kidding… I think) I decided to do it again.
Here is a scouting report an anonymous Division 1 coach gave us on how to beat Kansas:
Kentucky got lucky at the point that they caught Kansas in the schedule
They say that sometimes “it’s better to be lucky than good” and that’s certainly the case with Kentucky coming into this game. That’s because the Jayhawks enter this game without 7’1 center Udoka Azibuke and it has completely changed Kansas’ season.
Had Kentucky played Kansas in November, this matchup would have a completely different feel than it does now. Instead, the Wildcats welcome in an opponent that has had to completely change everything they do – especially on offense – since Azibuke, who was averaging 13 points and seven rebounds per game, went down.
“X’s and O’s wise, [Bill] Self has always gone high-low with trying to feed that post,” the coach said. “And now without Azibuke, that changes things for them.”
This coach happened to play the Jayhawks prior to Azibuke’s injury, at a time that the Jayhawks were at full-strength and as he mentioned, they are a totally different team without him.
With Azibuke in the lineup Kansas could go high-low with fellow forward Dedric Lawson (Kansas’ best player) feeding Azibuke in the post. It also left the opposing team in a tough place defensively. If they tried to play Azibuke one-on-one, he almost always had the size (at 7’1, 270 lbs.) to overpower his man. If they tried to double-team him, it created open opportunities for Kansas’s three-point shooters.
Now without him gone, it has completely changed their team. Which leads us to…
Dedric Lawson has emerged into an All-American – the question is, who else is behind him?
With Azibuke out it has led to shifting minutes and roles. It has also led to the emergence of junior forward Dedric Lawson as the team’s unquestioned leader and best player. The Memphis transfer (who Tubby Smith just let walk out the door) has emerged into a legitimate first-team, All-American type player, averaging just under 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. He is coming off a dominant, 29-point, 15-rebound effort against Iowa State the other night.
“He’s multi-skilled, [has] legit size, great body control,” the coach said. “He is a multi-dimensional, hybrid forward. He is a problem.”
So now the question of course is, how do you slow Lawson down?
Ironically, the coach believes that by asking that question, you’re actually taking the wrong approach. With Azibuke out of the lineup he believes that getting a big game from Lawson isn’t the problem.
It’s making sure no one else behind him has one.
“The thing that we would do there in all likelihood is, ‘let’s make sure no one else beats us,’” the coach said. “We’d say, ‘let him get his 29 but we can’t have [LaGerald] Vick make five threes. We can’t make [Quentin] Grimes into a great player.’ We would guard him to try and keep him under control but not allow other guys to beat us.”
It’s an interesting strategy, which brings us to maybe the most interesting thing about Kansas this year…
They’re a terrible three-point shooting team
This is not an exaggeration. The Jayhawks are miserable from behind the three-point line.
Now yes, part of this is Azibuke’s absence and the fact that when he was on the floor, it created open space for everyone else along the perimeter. But part of this is also the fact that some guys on Kansas just haven’t played up to their potential. McDonald’s All-American Quentin Grimes – a known three-point shooter and all-around elite scorer – is averaging just eight points per game on 31 percent shooting. Transfer Charlie Moore is averaging just three points per game in a Kansas uniform. He averaged 12 points per game at Cal two seasons ago.
And their struggles have especially impacted the Jayhawks from behind the three-point line.
Put simply, there is no Svi Mykhailiuk or Malik Newman walking through that door, and the result is that Kansas is a miserable three-point shooting team in 2019. They are currently hitting just 35 percent from behind the arc, a low number when you consider that they’ve hit over 40 percent in each of the last four seasons. And if you take out one player, LaGerald Vick, they are shooting just 30 percent as a team.
And that’s also why a big part of this game simply comes down to whether Kentucky can continue to defend the three-point line the way that they have over the last few games. To the Wildcats’ credit they have play great perimeter defense in the last two weeks, limiting Vanderbilt, Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State to just 26 percent shooting from three.
Can they do the same to Kansas: It could be the difference between a win and a loss.
“If they let [Kansas] get in 12, 13 made threes, Kentucky might be in trouble,” the coach said. “But if they hold them to seven threes, two of which [Dedric] Lawson makes, Kentucky will be in good shape.”
Which brings us to another important point…
Kentucky can’t let LaGerald Vick get hot
Outside of Azibuke, there was one player who came up more than any other during the conversation with the coach: Senior guard LaGerald Vick.
“I really think Vick is such an X-factor for them,” the coach said.
And with good reason.
That’s because as mentioned up top, Vick is the Jayhawks best three-point shooter, making 45 percent of his three-point attempts. What’s wild though is that Vick isn’t necessarily their most consistent threat, as he’s prone to wild hot and cold streaks.
On the positive side (for Kansas anyway), Vick has hit five or more three-pointers in six different games this season, including a staggering 8 for 8 performance from downtown against Vermont and a 7 for 11 three-point barrage against Stanford. On the flip side, he has hit two three-pointers or less in 10 of Kansas’s games with three separate zero three-point performances.
In other words, Kentucky can’t let Vick get on those old-school, NBA Jam “Heeeeeeee’s on fiiiiiiiire” three-point barrages. If they can limit Vick, it increases the likelihood that they win this game exponentially.
If you can create pressure on the Kansas backcourt, chances are they will make mistakes
Perimeter defense is going to be a key in this game, not just because Kansas struggles to shoot the three-point shot (barring the random, Vick-led explosion) but also because there is just so much youth in the backcourt.
While it’s no one player’s fault in particular, the bottom-line is that the Jayhawks lost Devonte Graham, Mykhailiuk and Newman from their backcourt last season, a group that included two fourth-year seniors and a third-year sophomore.
Although the new guys are playing well, they simply can’t live up to the expectation-level created by the guys they replaced.
“Devon Dodson, he’s nowhere near Devonte Graham, Frank Mason,” the coach said.
And it shows when they take the court.
While Dodson is averaging a respectable 10 points, three assists and 1.5 steals per game (not bad at all for a freshman), he is also averaging nearly 2.5 turnovers per game as well. Lawson – who is asked at times to create offense on the perimeter – is averaging over two turnovers per game as well, and the same with Vick. Grimes is averaging 1.9 turnovers per game, but is also playing fewer minutes (about 25 per game) than expected.
Point being, if you can create pressure on the perimeter, chances are pretty good that Kansas will turn the ball over.
Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson, are you listening?
Finally, try to get the Jayhawks into foul trouble and get Kansas into their bench
Of all the strange things with Kansas this season, maybe the most perplexing (outside of Grimes’ inability to shoot the three-point shot) is that their bench isn’t nearly as deep as once anticipated. Coming into the season, there was a narrative that this was the deepest team Self has had in years, with some saying “Kansas’ second team could be a Top 25 team.”
Unfortunately for Kansas fans (and fortunate for their opponents) that narrative simply hasn’t held up. As a matter of fact, when looking at Kansas’s most recent games, it’s jarring how little they use their bench.
In Monday’s win over Iowa State, Lawson, Dodson, Vick and Marcus Garrett all played 37+ minutes, with only one player – the previously unused Ochai Agbaji – getting a few minutes off the bench.
Incredibly, David McCormack (a McDonald’s All-American from last season), Moore (the Cal transfer who averaged double-figures two seasons ago) and Mitch Lightfoot, a junior and former Top 100 recruit combined for four minutes total on Monday night.
“If you look at [Monday] night’s box score,” the coach said, “Charlie Moore, Quentin Grimes and David McCormack basically had all zeros last night.”
“[At this point] They’re so dependent now Dedric Lawson bringing it every night.”
It seems so.
And it seems like if Kentucky can control the three-point line and make sure Lawson doesn’t go crazy, they can win this game.