Kentucky’s game against Georgia on Tuesday night is so big, for so many reasons. It’s the Wildcats’ first road game of the season. It’s their first road SEC game of the season. And it comes with the possibility that Ashton Hagans – arguably the best perimeter defender in college basketball – won’t be able to play as he recovers from an ankle injury.
So yeah, that’s bad enough. Even worse? Kentucky will do all that while facing one of the most explosive offensive players in college basketball, Georgia’s Anthony Edwards.
That’s right, this is a big game, and with so many interesting storylines coming in – most notably, Kentucky vs. the team with the potential No. 1 pick – I decided to dust off an old concept from last season and ask an opposing coach for a scouting report on Georgia, and Edwards specifically.
In case you can’t figure out the premise of the article, well, it’s pretty simple. I went through my Rolodex and called a coach who has faced Georgia this season and asked him for a scouting report on the Dawgs, and in this case specifically, how his team tried to slow down Edwards. I promised not to share his name or school affiliation, in exchange for every little nugget he had on Edwards.
For those who’ve read my work for a while, I actually did this four times last season – when Kentucky played North Carolina, Auburn and Kansas in the regular season, and when they faced Houston in the Sweet 16. And I hate to brag, but the Wildcats went 4-0 in those games. So clearly John Calipari read every word I wrote and took it to heart.
(Yes, I’m 1000 percent kidding).
So here is the first “Opposing Coach’s Scouting Report” of the 2019-2020 season, as I asked an opposing coach how his team went about slowing down Anthony Edwards.
The most important thing with Edwards is determining “how” you want to guard him
This might seem pretty elementary, but when it comes to Edwards, the first thing that a coach needs to determine is “how” they want to guard him.
What do I mean by that?
Well, in most cases, coaches have a set of principles they’re going to stick with, regardless of the opponent. Jim Boeheim will always play zone, whether he is facing a DII team in an exhibition or Duke in the ACC Tournament. Some teams switch on every screen regardless of the opponent, some will use pack line principles, whatever.
Then there is the rare case where you’re playing a team that is so unique, or a player that is so good, that you literally throw out everything you’ve done all season and implement an entirely new game-plan for that team or player.
This, according to that coach, is one of those times.
“It comes down philosophy,” the coach said. “Do you get away from what you’ve been teaching all year? And that’s always a question in a game… when a guy like him is a one-man wrecking crew.”
Admittedly, it might not be as extreme as “completely tearing up every game-plan you’ve ever used” but you do need to make tweaks specifically for Edwards. And the No. 1 thing according to this coach, is to keep a man on him at all times, and never help off of him no matter the circumstances.
It doesn’t matter if there is a driving guard and you’ve taught your team all year to collapse on driving guards. It doesn’t matter if someone catches the ball in the post and traditionally you double-team there.
For one night, none of that matters, as the sole focus has to be on Edwards.
“Essentially you may want to say to yourself ‘I’m going to play Georgia 4 on 4’ and just commit a defender to him at all times, without any gap help,” the coach said.
“To me,” he said, “that would probably be the best thing.”
The best bet to slow down Edwards is to put someone long and athletic on him: Which means this could be a big game for… Kahlil Whitney
As this coach points out, there is no way to completely shut down Edwards. But there is a certain profile of player who could – at least in theory – give him trouble.
It’s a player who is athletic enough to stay in front of him, but also big enough that Edwards can’t simply shoot over him.
Well, in browsing Kentucky’s roster there is one guy who fits that bill: Kahlil Whitney. And after weeks of waiting and wondering if Whitney’s moment will ever come, Tuesday might put Kentucky in a position where they have no choice but to throw him into the pond and see if he sinks or swims.
Whitney is the prototype of the kind of player who should be able to slow down Edwards.
“[Edwards] can pretty much shoot over anybody,” the coach said. “But the bigger the guy, the longer the guy, the more length you can put on him, it at least makes you a little more difficult to score on.”
As an interesting twist, the coach mentioned off-hand (without knowing that this was an article specific to how Kentucky matches up with Georgia) is that every player that his team put on Edwards was at least 6’6. Well, in theory that would eliminate Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley and potentially even Hagans (if he isn’t 100 percent) from guarding Edwards for long chunks of the game. And with all due respect, it doesn’t seem as though Keion Brooks, Nate Sestina, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards have the lateral quickness to keep up either.
It means that whether he is ready or not, Whitney might be called on to play a big role on Tuesday night in Athens.
But hey, he’s only going against the potential No. 1 pick in the draft. No pressure or anything.
Edwards three-point range is basically “in the gym”
If you’ve watched any of Georgia’s games this season (or heck, even any of his highlights on YouTube) this really is no secret. But one of the many things that makes Edwards so lethal is a near “in the gym” three-point shooting range.
If you're looking for a quick recap of Anthony Edwards entire second half, here ya go. This is like the 8th most impressive shot he's made since halftime ??? pic.twitter.com/kc5zeKKVsl
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 26, 2019
If Edwards can catch and square up, it means that he could launch a three from just about anywhere. And whoever is defending him at that moment needs to be aware.
“Traditionally in transition you’re running back to the paint and finding your guy and building out from there,” the coach said. “Here, you have to build out the defense to him pretty much at half-court.”
More than anything, transition defense will be key for the Wildcats on Tuesday night.
If Edwards does go off the dribble, make him make plays for others rather than himself
As we all know, Edwards isn’t only difficult to defend from beyond the three-point arc, but also off the dribble. And this coach impressed upon me that if Edwards does drive off the dribble, that you’ve got to get help on defense and make him give it up.
The first reason is obvious: You’d rather force someone other than Edwards to beat you.
But the second reason is less obvious, and more important: He is much more comfortable creating for himself than others.
“He thinks ‘score’ more than he thinks ‘pass,’” the coach said. “Not that he isn’t capable of passing but for him, he’s thinking score all the time.”
And the numbers back it up. Edwards is committing the second most turnovers of anyone on Georgia’s roster at nearly three per game, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of about 1:1.
Furthermore – and this was fascinating to me – not only is Edwards not very good at creating for others, he isn’t very good at creating second chances either. On the season Edwards has just eight offensive rebounds in almost 400 minutes played.
Meaning if you can get him to give it up off the bounce, good things will probably happen for you.
If Edwards does beat you off the dribble, you better foul him – and make it count
To be clear, no one – not the coach nor me – is advocating for anyone to do anything dirty here. We don’t want anyone getting hurt, or any opposing player doing anything outside the rules.
But, Edwards is freakishly strong for a guard, and if he gets by you, it’s going to take more than a slap on the wrist to keep him from getting the “and one” bucket.
“He can score through contact off the dribble,” the coach said. “Once he gets downhill he’s a pretty powerful kid.”
Finally, don’t let him get into a groove
Even dating back to his days before Georgia, Edwards earned a bit of a mythic status in high school for his ability to get hot and go on insane, one-man scoring runs. This coach specifically remembered one AAU game where Edwards scored 47 points in a single game, and this year against Michigan State he had a 37-point performance with 33… in the second half alone.
Meaning, if Edwards can put up 33 in a half against Michigan State, he can score and score in bunches against anyone.
“The biggest thing with Anthony, you can just never relax,” the coach said.
“You can never relax.”
Edwards is that good, and it will take a full team effort, for a full 40 minutes for Kentucky to slow him down on Tuesday night.