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The best postseason tournament in sports begins today and Kentucky will take the floor in Jacksonville as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region. It will be the second time in the John Calipari era that the Wildcats are coming from the 2-hole and it was of course the seed UK won the national title out of in 1998.Awaiting the Wildcats for the 7:10pm tip will be the Southland Conference champs. Abilene Christian will be making their first ever appearance in the tournament and they’ll be gunning to make a big splash.
Nuts and Bolts
For 40 years from 1959-2009, ACU was a Division II contender on the basketball court. The Wildcats made multiple playoff appearances over those decades highlighted by an Elite Eight finish in 1966. However, going into the 2013-2014 season, the university decided make up jump into Division I.
The ultimate goal was to have a team good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and in just their sixth season at the highest level they have accomplished that feat. Under alum Joe Golding, the Wildcats have had a slow build in Division I but in his eighth season, it appears that Golding has the Wildcats headed in the right direction.
After serving as as assistant coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, Golding landed the job at his alma mater and it was a slow climb. After six straight losing seasons to begin his head coaching career, the now 43 year old head coach has led ACU to consecutive winning regular seasons. This year was the breakthrough with 27 victories and a Southland Conference tournament title.
ACU hangs their hat on the defensive end. Under Golding, the Wildcats play at a slow pace and lean on their defense to make things happen. Abilene Christian uses a ball pressure man-to-man defense that is very good at forcing turnovers and limiting opponents to just one shot per possession. On the other end, ACU wants to take their time and get a good shot. Despite being an excellent three-point shooting team (38.3 percent), ACU only has 34.2 percent of their field goal attempts coming from behind the arc. ACU wants to attack the basket and use crisp passing in the halfcourt to create open looks.
This will be the first ever meeting between the two programs. Under Kentucky, John Calipari is 9-0 in the Round of 64, but their last game against a 15-seed was a little too close for comfort. Despite a two touchdown lead at half, UK struggled to put away Northern Kentucky on their way to just a nine-point victory.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 21-point favorite with a total of 132. That’s a projected final score of 76.5-55.5. On the season, Kentucky is 16-16-1 against the spread while ACU is 15-13-1. UK is just 3-7 against the number in their last 10 games.
At point for ACU is senior Jaylen Franklin who is putting up over 10 points and 4.9 assists per game. The Little Rock, Arkansas native has started every game for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-2 guard is an excellent perimeter defender who will give UK’s guards some fits when they put the ball on the deck. He’s limited on the offensive end, but is very good at drawing fouls and going to the line despite shooting under 60 percent at the stripe. He can make plays above the rim.
Next to Franklin on the perimeter is junior Payten Ricks who is this team’s top three-point specialist. The Kansas native has poured in 70 threes on a 40.5 percent shooting clip. Ricks is a really good shooter and you can expect most of his shots to come from three. Off the bench, head coach Joe Golding will use diminutive point guard Damien Daniels. The freshman guard from Kansas brings a scoring punch and is pesky on ball defender.
Just a few weeks ago, ACU was delivered a blow when starting guard BJ Maxwell was dismissed from the team. The off guard was this squad’s second best three-point shooter and a full-time starter. Despite his loss, ACU was still able to win the Southland tournament title.
ACU’s best player is found in the paint in senior Jaren Lewis. The 6-foot-6 forward plays the four for the Wildcats and he can step away from the hoop and space the floor (33.3 percent three-point shooter). He leads the team with 13.7 points per game and is a very solid offensive rebounder. He’ll be at a size disadvantage for 40 minutes, but has the athletic ability to make things happen with his quickness.
Next to Lewis in the post, ACU will use a platoon at the five. Both Hayden Farquhar and Joe Pleasant log time down low and they can both be considered glue pieces. Farquhar is the far more dangerous player with his three-point shooting ability. The majority of his shots have come from behind the three-point line.
On the wing, Trey Lenox plays the most when ACU doesn’t want to go to all in on a three-guard lineup. Lenox is another strong defender who does most of his damage with shots from behind the arc.
Keys to Victory
- In their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, you can expect for ACU to come out swinging early. It’s hard to not see how excited this team and program is to be here. UK should expect some big swings early. Following the gut-wrenching loss to Tennessee, it will be important for UK to take ahold of this game early and gain some confidence. Get a lead in the first five minutes and the talent should takeover for what should be a comfortable win.
- Despite not attempting too many three-pointers, ACU is one of the best teams in the country in making them. The Wildcats have four rotation players shooting at least 33 percent from deep. Against a talented defense with all kinds of length, don’t be surprised to see ACU launch at least 25 threes. If they hit 12 or 13 they will be in this game in crunch time.
- The strength of ACU is on defense and the Wildcats will play man-to-man and pressure the basketball. After a solid performance against Tennessee, Ashton Hagans will be challenged once again. If the freshman point guard is able to handle the pressure, hit lay-ups, and setup teammates that would be a good start to UK’s tournament run.
- Even if Hagans plays well, UK is going to have some turnovers tonight. ACU’s best offense usually comes off of turnovers and they produce a lot of them. When turnovers do happen, UK must be locked in on transition defense. Don’t give up cheap buckets or transition threes and Kentucky will be just fine for most of the 40 minutes.