Fantasy College Basketball Game of the Week: Kentucky at North Carolina
In the five years that John Calipari has been the coach of Kentucky, the Wildcats have been the most interesting team in the nation. They are not always the best team (although two year ago they won the national championship, and four years ago they had the best team), but they annually provide a sizzle to the basketball season with Calipari's ability to put incredible recruiting classes together. This year's class was reputed to be one of his best with five of the top ten players in some rankings. There were even rumblings of an undefeated season before a game was played. Those noises have stopped and the Wildcats have failed their three largest tests early in the season (Michigan State, Baylor at home, and now North Carolina). Has Calipari lost his magic touch? What separates this Wildcat team from previously more successful teams? The answers to these two questions became increasingly obvious during Saturday's game against the Tar Heels.
While I am sure there are many theories about what is wrong with Kentucky, the main problem is that they have no one to hit an outside shot. Opposing defenses are able to clog the lane, and the Wildcats continually drive into the paint and take crazy shots. Aaron Harrison has been the most successful driver and has made 47.3 percent of his shots. The shooting guard of the Harrison twins was able to score 20 points among the Tar Heel trees to lead the Wildcats, but he might be better served kicking the ball out to the perimeter for an assist rather than taking wild shots that I am sure came more easily to him in high school. Harrison is hitting just 31.9 percent of his 3-pointers. His brother, Andrew Harrison- the point guard of the pair - is hitting a respectable 36 percent from long range, but has only taken 25 threes this season. The other shooter on the team, swingman James Young hit a pair of 3-pointers against UNC, but is only making 34.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Kentucky can overpower most opponents based on sheer size, but the three teams that have beaten the Wildcats all have plenty of size. After a brilliant start, Julius Randle has cooled off and had his worst game of the season on Saturday. He contributed just 11 points and five rebounds, and did not look like the superstar that nearly brought UK back against Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Nov. 12. Credit North Carolina for having enough big bodies to frustrate Randle and keep the ball out of his hands. Randle has the most offensive talent on the Wildcats, but he needs space to work his magic. With the guards unable to space the floor and Willie Cauley-Stein not adding much on offense other than the ability to get some offensive rebounds, Randle is not able to enforce his will. Cauley-Stein has emerged as a very good shot blocker, but players that always go for blocked shots are often out of position when it comes to defensive rebounds.
Some people will claim that Kentucky is losing because they have an over-sized sense of entitlement. I think this implies that they are not putting forth effort. I didn't see that. I thought they were trying hard on defense and the Harrisons' crazy drives to the basket were better than settling for contested jumpers. However, the Wildcats are like an NBA team in that they think every foul called is a travesty. They also do not play as a team very well on offense, which is the opposite of what happened two years ago.
This report has made it seem like only one team was playing, but that was far from the case. This wasn't a game that Kentucky lost (which is usually how some people in the media spin all losses) as much as a win for North Carolina. The Tar Heels have now put together the three most impressive wins on the season in beating Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky. They have done this without P.J. Hairston (who was not back for Kentucky) and Leslie McDonald, who are still under suspension. The absence of the wings has allowed Marcus Paige to become a star. After a quiet first half, Paige was able to make his way to the basket repeatedly in the second half and finished with a game-high 23 points. The 6-1 sophomore has only gone 4-of-24 on 3-pointers in his last four games, but he made all 10 of his free throws against the Wildcats to improve his free throw percentage to 89.8 percent.
As noted above, the Tar Heels also have plenty of big players led by James Michael McAdoo. The 6-9 junior was once considered a lottery pick, but I think his upside is a very good college player. He had 20 points and went to the free throw line 19 times (making 12) in the win. McAdoo showed a solid ability to hit short- to medium-range jumpers over the athletic Wildcat defenders. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto had some athletic dunks and Brice Johnson looks like he is developing into a player. All in all, the Tar Heels look like they will be an interesting match up for Duke and Syracuse in the ACC. Once Hairston and McDonald come back, the team will have a lot of weapons and it will be up to coach Roy Williams to get everyone incorporated better than Calipari has done so far.