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 6:13 PM ^

I don't know basketball like most of you do but I see this game coming down to foul calls.  I thought Wichta State got jobbed by the refs against KY.  KY drove the lane time and time again, picking up foul after foul.  I see this potential again tomorrow night, putting JMo in foul trouble.

We will need good play out of Jon for solid minutes I predict. 

turd ferguson

March 29th, 2014 at 6:15 PM ^

I like the idea of a thin, young Kentucky team with bad transition defense playing less than 48 hours after an exhausting game against a major rival.  Between that and the little time their young guys have to regroup and learn about some of Michigan's quirks, I'm liking this matchup.


March 29th, 2014 at 6:16 PM ^

We have pretty much had two practices for this game in Tennessee and Texas judging by what Brian and others are saying, but we have a totally unique scheme that confuses the shit out of everyone.  There was a nice wrap up on ESPN about last night's game saying that the Vols basically had to scrap their gameplan after the first 5 minutes because we totally neutralized Maymon (quote below).  They had 4 days to prepare and were totally unprepared for what Beilein threw at them.  Beilein seems to always anticipate what is coming from the other team (partly because they always seem to be way overconfident and never adjust their game to the opponent), and makes the opposing coach look foolish.  Kentucky only has a day to prepare and doesn't know how to adjust anyway.


Size doesn’t always help: When Tennessee walked to the podium for its pregame media session on Thursday, it looked like a college football team. Jeronne Maymon and Stokes are large individuals, with size that Michigan lacks, and, on paper, that appeared to be a potential issue for the Wolverines. How would they deal with a team that had big wings and strong post players such as Stokes and Maymon? Well, that wasn’t the real question. The real question became, "How can Tennessee stay in front of the Wolverines?" It couldn’t in the first half. Martin had Maymon on Robinson early, which didn’t last long, as Robinson kept beating Maymon off the dribble. He had to insert Derek Reese, a 6-8 wing, to guard him. Early in the game, Tennessee wasn’t even using Stokes and Maymon together. Maymon’s early foul trouble might have contributed to that, but the Vols were better with the one-big system. That’s how you know Michigan is a really good team, as Tennessee had to adjust its entire scheme in the first five minutes to deal with it. But the one-big system also helped the Vols climb back into the game.



March 29th, 2014 at 9:06 PM ^

I'm not worried about this game though I'm not saying it's a guaranteed win. Barring an unusual game where UK shoots great or we shot poorly, or really bad officiating, an abundance of turnovers we should be fine. I expect a comfortable victory of around 8 points with UofM threatening to blow UK out.
Teams with bigs hurt us when associated with talent like MSU or Wisconsin. They have guys on the outside that punish you for doubling their big because they can shoot, drive and pass. Neither Texas, Tennessee note Kentucky had or have that. So we should be fine unless something strange happens.


March 30th, 2014 at 8:16 AM ^

We win. Louisville fans rooting against Kentucky, no Cauley-what's-his-name, we have been here before....if we come out making shots, if not, long rebounds will turn into fast break points for them and fouls on us. I really think the only way we keep them out of the lane is to zone em up. We haven't shown the ability to keep anybody in front of us all season. Michigan 82 - KY 69 - bring on the Badgers!

Hugh White

March 30th, 2014 at 8:57 AM ^

Last year, Michigan's tournament run seemed like Bruce Lee's ascent up the pagoda in Game of Death -- where every level brought a totally different style. This year, every team seems to be an upgraded version of the one before. Perhaps the movie-analogy is from the Incredibles, where Bob next challenge is always a the next upgraded version of Syndrome's Omnidroid.