Tourney Preview: Kentucky

Submitted by Brian on March 30th, 2014 at 3:31 PM


WHAT Michigan (28-8, 15-3 B1G) vs.
Kentucky (27-10, 12-6 SEC)
WHERE Colts Location Stadium,
Indianapolis, IN
WHEN 5:05 pm Eastern, Sunday
LINE Michigan -1 (KenPom)
PBP: Jim Nantz
Analyst: Greg Anthony
Liveblog Sponsored by Marawatch; starts at 5.


Win or go home.


Projected starters are in bold.

This preview assumes that Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein is out after John Calipari said his issue was "not a good ankle injury." He was limping badly after the game, on crutches, and told Kentucky trainers he "heard it pop." Save some Travis Trice blisters heroism, he's out.

Pos. # Name Yr. Ht./Wt. %Min %Poss SIBMIHHAT
G 2 Aaron Harrison Fr. 6'6, 218 80% 21 Sort of
80/48/35 shooter is UK's most efficient offensive player.
G 5 Andrew Harrison Fr. 6'6, 215 78% 22 Sort of
PG-type player awful inside line, has high TO rate. Gets FTs, decent from 3.
G 1 James Young Fr. 6'6, 215 80% 22 Sort of
Almost identical statistically to Aaron, but slightly worse in most categories.
F 5 Julius Randle Fr. 6'9, 250 76% 27 Yes
Classic PF tough to handle on boards, can get own shot. Only 52%.
C 34 Dakari Johnson Fr. 7'0, 265 33% 20 N/A
OREB monster. Block rate/DREB rates not scary. Putback machine. Miserable FT%.
F 4 Alex Poythress So. 6'8, 239 45% 18 Yes
OREB guy and rim finisher is black hole on O, good on D.
G 15 Dominique Hawkins Fr. 6'0, 193 17% 8 Yes
Almost invisible on offense for good reason. 46/43/13 shooter in small sample.
G 23 Jarrod Polson Sr. 6'2, 182 19% 8 Sort of
Gritty walk on has 35 shots on the year.

For completeness, Cauley-Stein is an elite defensive player, a block machine with a high steal rate. He doesn't rebound as much as you'd expect because he tries to swat everything and his offense is relatively limited.


Welcome to the sequel of the sequel: Kentucky is an upgraded version of Tennessee, which was an upgraded version of Texas. Stop me if you've heard this before: Kentucky is an offensive rebound machine that can't shoot threes and doesn't force turnovers but does do everything else well on D. Or at least they were with Cauley-Stein. They're probably still a number of those things. How many remains to be seen, but that's another section.

The individual players all come with a sameness to them. Kentucky is the world's worst NBA team, a collection of bodies that looks like an NBA All Star game… and often plays like one. But if they've figured something out they've figured something out, and then they're not pleasant to consider.

Andrew, #5, is the point guard type guy

The Harrison twins are the primary guards. Andrew Harrison (#5) is the point-guard type substance—it's hard to tell when everyone's 6'6"—with his team-high assist rate. Unfortunately for Kentucky, his TO rate is just as high. 23.5 is a number that would make you shake your head if it was a 7-footer turning it in; for a point guard it's turrible. His inconsistency has been apparent even amongst the maelstrom that is the Kentucky freshmen:

He has the handles and jumper, until they disappear. He can be a lock-down defender on individual plays but often lets up on that end and commits a lot of silly fouls. He also seems too reliant on and comfortable with passing to his brother, an NBA prospect but not Kentucky's best player by any means.

Harrison is only a 39% two-point shooter; he gets to the rack a lot (a third of his shots) but only hits half of his generally tough layup attempts and he's a miserable two-point shooter. He may be getting saddled with the Dion Harris shots, to be fair: 4% of his two pointers were assisted this year. FOUR!

Harrison has two three-point modes: he's a good catch and shoot guy near the arc, and then he's a miserable bricklayer trying to catch guys off the dribble, often on shots that are a couple feet behind the line. His main strength as a player is drawing fouls. He's in the top 100 in that department and hits FTs at 77%. Michigan, of course, does not foul much.

Aaron Harrison (#2) is a wing/SG type who's considerably more efficient than his brother; outside of the presumably unavailable Cauley-Stein he's Kentucky's most efficient guy. He's got a relatively low TO rate, decent usage, and shoots 80/48/35. He's much better at the rim than his brother, probably because at least some of his shots are coming off plays other guys made, but he's relatively uninspiring from all ranges.

James Young (#1) may as well be the third Harrison twin. He's also 6'6". Statistically he is a clone of Aaron. Watching Kentucky in person it was difficult to tell who was doing what; their games are all so similar. Young is marginally worse at getting to the basket and finishing, marginally worse in A:TO, marginally worse in defensive categories.

The biggest difference is that Young is about 55/45 threes to twos while Aaron Harrison is the inverse. Meanwhile, point guard Harrison—Andrew—has only 87 3FGA on the season against 208 twos and a bucket of free throws.

Guesses as to Michigan's defensive disposition: Stauskas on Young, LeVert on Aaron Harrison, Walton on Andrew Harrison, but they're just going to switch everything because screw it they're all basically the same guy. Look for Spike to get almost all of his minutes when one of them is on the bench and one of the six-foot zero offense backups comes in.

Video made nine games into the season

Power forward Julius Randle is going to be a lottery pick in a few months and it takes about ten minutes of observation for you to figure out why. Capable of getting to the rack from the three point line and making tough shots once there, Randle has a high ceiling and an NBA body. Randle draws fouls like whoah, rebounds both ends ferociously, and has a 71% free throw stroke that bodes well for the future, when jumpers will have to become a part of his game.

They aren't now. Randle's shots are split evenly between the rim and two-point jumpers. The difference is stark. He hits 71% at the rim and 34% when removed from it. And that 71% is not a Jordan Morgan assisted-dunk fest; he gets his own offense quite a bit. If you watched Louisville you saw a number of Randle buckets where the only appropriate response was "whoah."

But as we saw in the Tennessee game, a disadvantage in size for Glenn Robinson leads to an advantage in quickness. Randle is a much better athlete than Jeronne Maymon, but his ability to check Robinson remains questionable. With Cauley-Stein out Kentucky loses most of their shotblocking. Meanwhile, if Glenn can cut Randle off when he tries to attack from the perimeter a chunk of his game turns into those two-pointers Michigan wants to see.

Starting center Dakari Johnson has actually been starting since the beginning of February, alternating between games where he is a starter in name only (8 minutes versus Arkansas, nine versus Florida) and games of 20 or so minutes. He hadn't had a ton of impact aside from the occasional offensive board and putback until he went 7/10 against Louisville in 31 minutes. Actually, scratch "occasional." Johnson is a facecrushing offensive rebounder. If he'd gotten enough minutes to qualify on Kenpom he'd be fifth in the country, behind only Baylor's Rico Gathers amongst power conference teams.

Johnson's game is limited outside of those putbacks, which comprise almost 60% of his makes at the rim. When not flushing someone else's miss he's 44% in the post. He is a bizarrely great player on jumpers, though, hitting nearly half. Sample size? Maybe, but the prescription is clear for Morgan: crowd the guy if he gets the ball in the short corner or elbow, and for the love of god someone box him out.

On defense Johnson is a huge step back from Cauley-Stein. His block rate of 4.2 is about a third of Cauley-Stein's. He doesn't steal the ball like Cauley-Stein and his foul rate of 5.9 per 40 veritably looms in a game where he's going to have to go 30-35 minutes.

Unlike Tennessee, Kentucky has a bench. His name is Alex Poythress.

Kentucky's bench is now nearly as barren as Tennessee's. They have one guy, 6'8" SF/PF Alex Poythress. Poythress generates little offense on his own—75% of his shots at the rim are assisted or putbacks and he has a tiny assist rate—and is an inefficient shooter. He is a good finisher once he gets to the rim, and he is of course an excellent offensive rebounder who blocks a fair amount of shots; he's mostly of use on defense. Kentucky has played him at the three and in the post during his career. Now that he's the only big backup he'll see almost all of his time spotting Randle and Johnson.

Two other gentlemen will see the court. Six-foot freshman Dominique Hawkins was unearthed yesterday for his first extended playing time since January. In 15 minutes his box score contribution was three fouls and nothing else. Senior heady gritenstein Jarrod Polson has had spurts of playing time throughout the season after a significant bench role a year ago; he has vanishingly small usage. If he does anything it'll be take an open three someone else generates.

While Kentucky spreads their offense around almost equally amongst four players, Michigan has an opportunity whenever Hawkins or Polson is in. First, the point guard can sag off that guy with impunity, and second, that point guard can be Spike Albrecht.


Kentucky's nonconference schedule was middling. Games against power conference teams:

  • Michigan State (N): L 78-74
  • Providence (N): W 79-65
  • Baylor (Semi-Away): L 67-62
  • @ North Carolina: L 82-77
  • Louisville: W 73-66

A win against a Providence outfit that ended up an 11 seed and a home win over Louisville against a couple of road-ish losses that were close and a neutral court loss to MSU by 4. Kentucky did beat Cleveland State, Boise State, and Belmont, all KP100 teams, FWIW.

And then SEC play. Tennessee alternated losses and blowouts en route to a +0.14 efficiency margin; Kentucky had more close games and only managed a +0.08. They lost to Arkansas twice, LSU once (and escaped with a one-point OT win against them at home), Florida twice, and to a miserable South Carolina team. That's how you end up with an eight seed.

All of that looks lovely if you stop the season right then. It looks less so now, after SEC tourney blowouts of LSU and Georgia followed by a one-point loss to Florida in the title game and a three-game NCAA run that features wins over Wichita State and Louisville. Since the end of the regular season Kentucky has flown up from 25th to 10th in Kenpom. The whole freshman-figuring-it-out thing may apply.


Kentucky in a nutshell: they are 311th in assists and 23rd at preventing assists. On offense they:

  • murder the boards, resurrect the boards, and murder them again (42% OREB, 2nd nationally)
  • get fouled a ton
  • shoot relatively poorly for a team with so much talent
  • are pretty bad at a relatively small number of threes
  • are mediocre at taking care of the ball

On defense they:

  • have a Michigan-level aversion to creating turnovers
  • block a ton of shots (but not anymore probably)
  • are tough to score against from any range
  • aren't too good at rebounding and keeping guys off the line
  • are pretty good at preventing threes from going up

Kentucky is about as transition-oriented as Michigan, but considerably less efficient. On defense, they suuuuuuuck at transition relative to their half-court defense, giving up half their transition shots at the rim for a 70% eFG rate. Kentucky has survived their transition threes well enough, but if they give 'em up to Michigan they are going to regret it—Michigan hits 46%.


Hold up against Randle, GRIII, and get yours. There are going to be 15-20 minutes when Poythress is on the floor, whereupon Morgan will get whichever starting big is left. With Johnson just too big for Robinson to handle (see: Frank Kaminsky) Michigan probably* doesn't have the option to put Morgan, who is coming off a straight-up domination of Jarnell Stokes, on Randle for the other 25 minutes.

This reads like a problem. It read like a problem against Tennessee until Jeronne Maymon was exposed as a pylon. Michigan's offense has the ability to do the same thing to Randle, who is quicker than Maymon but still decidedly uncomfortable defending the perimeter. Meanwhile, his mistake-eraser is out. Michigan cannot win the rebounding battle in this game; they have to make up for it by using their perimeter quickness to get it back.

*[They could actually try it since Johnson does not have a post game, especially if one of the backup guards is in. But then Johnson is going to have an even easier time of just jumping over someone for a rebound.]

1-3-1 watch. Turnover-prone, assist-light, often-discombobulated gaggle of freshmen that is mediocre from three-point range: Kentucky is an obvious 1-3-1 target. The rebounding looms, as it is wont to do, but it's going to loom anyway. I didn't like its deployment against Texas since Michigan's defense was forcing all manner of horrible shots anyway; against Kentucky it could be a game-swinger.

Zone panic watch. There won't be a zone attempt in this game since Calipari can barely get his guys to play one defense, let alone two. Advantage Michigan?


DEATH FROM ABOVE. Concerns about Michigan being able to deploy their prime weapon against Tennessee were blown away by an 11 for 20 performance against one of the country's stingiest three-point defenses. Kentucky is good but not on Tennessee's level in this department, and it is really easy to see Michigan initiating drives, getting dudes lost via Beilein wizardry, and raining in death from above. It'll be there to take. Michigan can shoot over Kentucky's guys.

As a bonus, death from above from opposition teams tends to lure Kentucky into a machismo battle—NBA all star game, remember—and causes them to launch up long, contested, terrible shots.

Salt. Jordan Morgan has been one man fighting a horde of giants in this tournament and the road gets no easier tomorrow. He will draw Randle on a number of important possessions, and if he can body up like he did against Stokes Randle is going to have a frustrating night. Meanwhile he has to battle Johnson for defensive rebounds and has an opportunity to clean up on the pick and roll and the offensive boards himself, as Kentucky is generally unfamiliar with the concept of a box out.

Take care of the ball. Generally this goes without saying but after some ugly turnovers from Walton, LeVert, and the team as a whole late in the game, I'm going to say it: Michigan needs one of those four turnover games, not a 13 turnover outing. Fortunately they've drawn a Kentucky team that does not steal the ball, playing without their best steal man.


Michigan by one.



March 29th, 2014 at 2:39 PM ^

This is a good write-up and summation of Kentucky.  And it gives a nod to us, which, cool beans.  But man, when Kentucky is on, and they have been, they are a tough, tough beat.  This could be one for the ages.


March 29th, 2014 at 3:04 PM ^

Outside of MSU where the fouls to our bigs crushed us early and the Wofford game which was basically a JV team we have had a weird pattern since OSU of almost identical games.  Monster start, great shooting, sit at half time and think "we just shot the lights out and played as efficiently on offense as you could ask a NCAA team to, why the heck aren't we up by more...oh yeah defense", early 2nd half decent play, then massive lull in 5 min to 15 min spot in 2nd, then either a frantic finish (OSU, Tenn) or regain form (Texas). 

I know a small sample but it's been eerie how a few of these games have been so similar.  Not sure why we go to sleep there in the 2nd - maybe because the leads are generally 10-14, we are lulled into complacency and in a 1 and done the other team has more desperation but (a) I doubt we have such a lead this time around and (b) we cannot be asleep for 10 minutes in this game.

On paper this game worries me a lot more than Tenn and Texas because I have Fab 5 tourney run etched in my mind but this time in Kentucky uniforms, but if UK does pull it off, it won't be cheap - they'd have beaten the #1, #2, and #4 (incl their major rival).  Everyone is focused on the bigs, but their ability to take guards off the dribble against our "challenged" perimeter defenders is the main worry to me.  Morgan will be busy with Randle inside, and asking him to help defense all game when their guards blow by ours is going to be impossible.   They have multiple Jordan McRae types.

Gulo Gulo Luscus

March 29th, 2014 at 3:46 PM ^

around here i'd be foolish to say it's a "trend" without actually looking into our propensity to blow big leads, but i'm with you.  about 10 mins into the game yesterday i texted my friend: "tenn looks good but we look better. gotta extend this lead so we can do our usual take big lead, give up most of it, pull out a victory anyway thing"

since the fab 5 comparisons keep coming up... a theoretical kentucky run (the real one ends tomorrow) would have to be one of the best ever SOS-wise (using AP ranks).  i threw in last year's tourney run just for comparison.

fab 5: temple, e tenn st, #11 oklahoma st, #3 ohio st, #12 cincy, #1 duke

2013 michigan: s dakota st, vcu, #3 kansas, #14 florida, #16 syracuse, #2 lville

theoretical kentucky: kansas st, #2 wichita st, #5 lville, #7 michigan, #4 arizona, #1 florida


March 29th, 2014 at 3:04 PM ^

on the one hand, they are a streaky team of freshmen that doesn't play defense particularly well. OTOH, they have been terrifying in the last 5-10 games.

Again, the X-factor will be extremely similar to the Tennessee game: JMo does work down low, GRIII runs past slower guys, and then make it rain from behind the arc. I could see either team winning by 10.


March 29th, 2014 at 3:20 PM ^

Dumb question of the day - why the heck are Saturday games on TBS rather than CBS.  CBS is showing things like a rerun of 2 Broke Girls and paid programming in that time slot.  I am boggled by this as I assumed Elite 8 matchups would garner better ratings than rerurns and paid infomercials.


March 29th, 2014 at 3:23 PM ^

The thing that I didn't like about the turnovers was that most of them (minus the end of game antics) were unforced turnovers. A lot of levert just losing the ball and Walton throwing it away. Tennessee doesn't usually force a lot of turnovers either and yet we had 13....:


March 29th, 2014 at 9:48 PM ^

This is waaay out there, but could a contributing factor have been that the color of the unis were so similar?  

We all thought that the NCAA would have Michigan wear home whites to get the appropriate contrast with Tenn creamsicle orange, but that's not what happened.  There's not that much contrast between our maize and their light orange.  When you are looking to make a pass in the midst of 10 players moving at high velocity, every little bit of clarity helps.

Again, way out there, but who knows? 

Chris S

March 29th, 2014 at 3:28 PM ^

I predict a Mich McGary surprise appearance to wraastle both Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson at the same time - getting all three of them kicked out of the game.

Michigan Arrogance

March 29th, 2014 at 3:53 PM ^

This is not a knock against kentucky, which is a very talented group and have been playing well the last 3-4 weeks....


but we got this. our offense won't turn the ball over like yesterday (partly b/c UK doesn't force them). They are missing their best defender and are 90% freshman who haven't seen an offense this effecient and a team who can shoot like M. They don't defend the 3 well, don't have much transition D. typical young team, really. They are talented and will surely have a few OMG plays, but it's not like we haven't seen talented teams before. We can get their collective egos to get in  a long range shooting contest at times- but we can do that in the context of the offense, they do it in the context of an all star game. they will have a few transition WOW plays and a few great plays in the paint, but I really think we win by 8+ by getting hot and making a couple 8-0 or 11-2 runs, perhaps spurred by a 1-3-1 phase or two on D.

A date with MSU in the title game is really looking like a terrifying possibility for my heart.


March 29th, 2014 at 4:44 PM ^

Agree on some points, mainly the "HAVOC offense" we run is going to be something that makes a bunch of freshman heads spin.  Also when we do rebound I do think we'll get some easy transition looks, probably some open 3s since we seem to prefer those over taking it to the hole (unless its LeVert).  And as Brian said we'll see a lot of man to man so that will simplify what to prepare for.

As for turnovers yesterday was strange - until the last few minutes I don't think UT caused much of any.  Caris did his usual head scratchers but Walton did a few strange ones where he drove to the basket and seemed to have no place to go with his pass (one went off Morgan's hands but the ther 1-2 I remember just were him not having any place to throw it to).  I expect Caris to have 2-3 of those "weird guy" turnovers a game but Walton generally has less/more normal turnovers.

Going to be a fascinating matchup which should be very worthy of Elite 8.   Spike is due in one of these games to go off - this would be a fine one to do so!


March 29th, 2014 at 3:57 PM ^

that is going to confuse a young team like Kentucky. I'm feeling relatively good with Cauley-Stein out. It is a scary match up though because they are athletic.

You left out one key piece of information when you mentioned the MSU game. Injuries. I'm sure Michigan State would have dominated otherwise.


March 29th, 2014 at 4:02 PM ^

Say all you want last night about the comment RE: McGary, but I think he does have a marginal point.  I think the point was, if McGary was going to be out or limited, it did force some of the otherwise younger role players to step up their game.  Leadership & talent abhors a vaccum, so we had Stauskas, LeVert, and Walton up their games a bit.

Where I think he screwed up was implying that it was necessarily a net improvement in overall talent/production for the team.

But unlike us w/ McGary's absence, the absence of Kentucky's big man happened literally 24 hours ago.  They don't have weeks/months for the younger players to fill the void and adjust to shifting roles in light of his absence. They've got 48 hours.

But who knows?  Maybe Johnson somehow represents an instant upgrade, or he has inspired play or something.   But you'd think if that were obvious, they would've been giving him more playing minutes from the beginning.  Maybe he turns into a beast ala Mitch McGary in last year's tournament run, but I doubt it.

The smart bet here is that the injury leads to a significant downgrade in Kentucky's defensive capabilities.


March 29th, 2014 at 4:27 PM ^

I forget where, but Nik gave an interview saying just as much. He said early on that Mitch was planned to be the go-to guy, the center of the offense and when he went down, Nik knew someone had to step up to fill the void. A 6-4 start has grown into a 28-8 record and an Elite 8 berth.

And you're right about UK, if WCS was that big a deal to them, they wouldn't have enough time to fill that void of leadership. They may be talented enough to win anyway though


March 29th, 2014 at 4:49 PM ^

If Mitch had been healthy all year I think LeVert would have been more of a 4th option and Morgan somewhere between last year's Morgan and what we currently have.   I think Nik would have exploded either way.

The first 10 games of the year we were starting Horford mostly over Mitch (no offense to Horford), Mitch was playing at X%, a freshman PG was running a complex offense for the first time at this level, Caris was going from 2 pts per game and 10 minutes a game 8th man to starter, and we had 2 returning starters essentially.  With our entire backcourt in the NBA.  There was going to be a learning curve with or without Mitch in terms of roles and getting Walton to run the team. 

Expectations for this team coming into the year were that Mitch and GR3 were going to be the 2 leaders and then everyone else would grow into the roles even if we had been completely healthy, and it would have taken time to gel together as it was still only 3 returning starters and all those guys were SOPHOMORES.  What they have accomplished without Mitch is almost surreal.


March 29th, 2014 at 5:09 PM ^

I have a feeling that this is going to be the game where get out of our 2nd half funk.  I think they will cut down on turnovers and continue the pattern of beating down these "stronger, bigger, physical teams".