Unless you are a very optimistic person it can be hard to pull out the silver linings from the last several months. Whether it be the serious issues like sickness and death due to the Coronavirus or the seemingly more trivial ones like our favorite sports seasons being shortened, delayed, or in the case of March Madness, cancelled all together, it hasn’t been a great run. However, Wednesday night we got to witness one silver lining as it pertains to the 2020-2021 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.
After getting in 32 practices over the course of 40 days, this completely revamped roster is much further along on day one of the season than a Coach Calipari team generally would be. As Kentucky fans, we are accustomed to a high rate of turnover on the roster and each season Coach Cal has to work his magic to make an almost entirely new roster coexist. This season there is more new blood than ever but last night we got to see how important that extra preseason practice time has been.
Instead of sloppy turnovers, missed shots, and defensive lapses we saw 18 assists on 33 made baskets, 6/16 shooting from 3-point range, and some of the best team defense I’ve ever seen from a Kentucky team in the month of November. You can say, “Well, it was against Morehead State” and that obviously is true, but the tape doesn’t lie. Making the correct defensive rotations and following a personnel-specific scouting report is just as difficult regardless of who you are playing.
After breaking down the film these are three areas that really jumped out to me. You can see the length, athleticism, and talent without really diving in too deep. However, this Kentucky team is even more impressive when put under the microscope.
In this first clip you see some pretty basic defensive rotation, but considering that the defender involved is a Freshman it becomes very impressive. Terrence Clarke identifies early on that the play is going towards the left wing and has the veteran-level awareness of staying at the mid-line as opposed to floating on out to the right wing to stand next to his defender. Then, he recognizes the baseline drive and immediately steps up and is able to stop it before the ball gets to the paint which is what every coach would want. Upon forcing the ball handler to pick up his dribble, Clarke doesn’t just run straight to his defender but instead puts a hand out and works “up the line” into help position as he should. This ends up creating a steal that leads to a foul on a fast break attempt. It may seem like a small thing, but this is HIGH LEVEL stuff from a true freshman.
From the very beginning of this second clip Kentucky has Morehead State on their heels. Devin Askew is bothering the ball and not allowing an easy entry pass into their Horns action while Lance Ware also makes them step out well beyond the three point line to get the catch. At this point they are already totally out of sync and unable to get any penetration. A late baseline drive is stopped by Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher does a great job of dropping into help and getting low enough as the drive happens to get a finger on the pass. The ball ends up in the hands of a bad shooter who puts it off the side of the backboard as the shot clock expires. Excellent defensive possession!
The first couple of offensive possessions against the Morehead State zone weren’t the best, but as the game went on Kentucky really exploited it. They were patient, moved the ball quickly, and had excellent cuts to open spaces. Here, Devin Askew delivers a pass into the middle of the zone where Cam’Ron Fletcher has flashed. Immediately upon catching the ball, Fletcher looks to the opposite wing just like he should and delivers an on the money to pass to B.J. Boston. Boston has a shot, but at this point in the game is 0-4 from 3-point range and decides to turn it down and attack the closeout. Throughout the game this is where Boston was at his best and he makes this right-hand drive look easy finishing with a little finger roll.
I’ll admit some bias here because we ran the heck out of the Inside Triangle at Defiance College when I was coaching there one year, but this was some terrific execution on this possession. Clarke and Mintz are the two guards high and wide with Jackson, Boston, and Sarr inside. Jackson gets a catch around the top of the key and Sarr sets up to downscreen for Boston. It is a small detail, but at this point Clarke and Mintz do a good job of flattening out on the wings when Jackson gets his catch. Boston makes a good read and back cuts the screen which left Sarr open in the post if Jackson had seen him. The ball is swung to the right wing and Boston cross screens for Sarr to bring him to the strong side and Jackson screens-the-screener. Boston was definitely open for a 3, but Clarke feeds the post to Sarr. In typical Sarr fashion he is as fundamental as it gets. He shows his hands early while coming off the cross screen, starts posting in the paint, has to come off the block a step for the catch so he faces up, makes a quick jab to his right that forces the defender to bounce back ever so slightly and he nails the face-up J. Textbook all around.
Room for Improvement
Lack of Press Offense Execution: In this clip there are really three key mistakes. First off, and this is the least egregious of the three, Terrence Clarke is a little lazy and does a bad job setting up his cut which forces him to catch the inbounds pass in the “deep dark corner.” Upon getting the ball back near mid court he promptly takes two dribbles and picks the ball up immediately after crossing the half court mark where he is met with a double team. The half court line obviously serves as a third defender here. You never want to pick the ball up right after crossing mid court. To this point we have actually survived both mistakes as the ball is delivered to Devin Askew at the top of the key. He is headed down in hill in a 3-on-2 situation with Isaiah Jackson at the rim. As one Morehead defender steps up to stop the ball which should automatically trigger a lob to Jackson, Askew stops and throws a weak, one-handed bounce pass with his left hand which is easy deflected and stolen. With Isaiah Jackson at the rim, or really anybody on this team, bounce passes in the paint are a no-go.
Defensive Breakdown: This is a little nit-picky I will admit, but that is what breaking down film is all about. I hate to single out Isaiah Jackson too because besides one other bad close out early on in the game he was EXCELLENT as an off-ball defender. However, this is a learning experience right here. As Morehead comes off the ballscreen Davion Mintz does a good job of going over when guarding #55 and Olivier Sarr “Shadows” the ballscreen to allow Mintz to get back. B.J. Boston is even able to stunt at the ball in the gap as well. As the ball is driven to the right though Jackson, who is two passes away, is staring at the ball instead of tightening up to his man as he should be. Even worse, he is guarding James Baker Jr. who we mentioned in the scouting report loves to backcut. Baker blows right by Jackson for a big slam.