Monday, April 7, 2014

The Calipari vs. Ollie Chess Match

Kentucky vs. UConn was an excellent championship game with two good teams going back-and-forth for 40 minutes. The momentum of the game swung several times as both coaches made crucial adjustments with their line-ups in order to take control of the game. That doesn't always happen in an NCAA Tournament game - Billy Donovan vs UConn and Rick Barnes vs. Michigan are two examples of that. 

John Calipari and Kevin Ollie were playing chess out there and it was a lot of fun to watch.

1) The opening move was Ollie's. He had his much smaller and faster PG's - Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright - press up on the Harrison Twins in order to speed up the tempo of the game. UConn, as the smaller team, wanted to get the game going up and down as much as possible. 

2) Kentucky, as the bigger team, wanted to keep the game out of transition and in the half-court, where their size would be the difference. Calipari put his team in a 2-3 zone, forcing UConn to make 5-6 passes a possession instead of quickly scoring off the dribble-drive. In zone, his young players would always be in help position on defense. 

That was the story for the middle stretch of the game, which saw Kentucky slowly crawl back into it. With the game coming down to the line in the stretch run, the moves started coming faster.

3) Calipari went small first, subbing in Alex Poythress for Dakari Johnson. Instead of going with the biggest possible front-line, he has a hybrid duo of Randle and Poythress, who are more comfortable moving their feet in space and can be threats outside of the paint. 

4) That allowed Ollie to go small and slide DeAndre Daniels to the 5, the same move he made against Florida. Daniels at the 5 and Niels Giffey at the 4 is their best offensive unit, in terms of having shooting and ball-handling on the floor. 

5) In order to make up for their lack of size on defense, UConn went to a zone. Whenever any of Kentucky players drove the lane, they over-helped and tried to force difficult shots. 

6) The read the Kentucky players should have made was to look to pass the ball more. That was how they were able to get back in the game - Randle had 4 assists and Andrew Harrison had 5 assists, a lot of which were drive and kicks for open 3's. However, with the game on the line, Kentucky got back in their old habits and started trying to score through traffic, allowing UConn to get just enough stops and turnovers to seal away the game.

There was just a lot of different things going on in the game. Ollie and Calipari were going move for move with each other for almost the entire game. In order to predict this game, you had to game theory it out 4-5 steps - Ollie would do X, which means Calipari would do Y, than X, than Y. 

These counter-moves are where you really saw the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein for Kentucky. Johnson couldn't play the whole game - he's a really big guy and I'm guessing he was gassed after 25 minutes. As a result, they gave away a lot of their size advantage when they pulled him late. Having both would have meant 40 minutes of 7'0 pounding on the smaller UConn front-line. 

Nevertheless, Kentucky had their chances to win. The game followed the format of their last 4, with their size slowly wearing down the other team over the course of the game and allowing them to mount a comeback. Two stats ended up playing a crucial role: Kentucky's free-throw shooting (13-24) and their assist to turnover ratio (11 to 13). If they had made their free throws and taken care of the ball, they would have won the game. Those are classic young team mistakes, so there's your narrative right there. 

Kentucky went 5-16 from the three-point line and most of their makes were off the pass. Their guards didn't have the skill of UConn's guards - if the Harrisons are taking off the dribble 3's, I like my chances as the other team. They still weren't totally committed to making each other better and that ended up costing them the game.

On the whole, though, it's hard to say either team blew the game. They both did things right and they both did things wrong and UConn just made a few more plays in the last few minutes to seal it. It was one of the most even and well-played championship games I can remember.

That's why I find this whole talk that Kentucky being bad for the NCAA so ridiculous. Compare how compelling this game was to UConn's victory over Butler in 2011 - it's not even a comparison. That was a fantastic ending to a fantastic NCAA Tournament and that's due in large part to the classic series of games that Kentucky was a part of.

Here's the best part - I think Calipari's recruiting class for next year is even better. I saw all of those guys at the McDonald's Game this year and came away impressed. Karl Towns has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick, Trey Lyles is more comfortable on the perimeter than Randle and Ulis and Bookert are faster and better shooters than the Harrisons. 

Kentucky isn't going anywhere and it's the best thing that could have happened for NCAA basketball. 

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