By Steve Kallas
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It certainly wasn’t a total shock that Wisconsin was able to beat Kentucky the national semifinals on Saturday. But, an upset? Absolutely.
What happened? Was it the athleticism of Sam Dekker? The offense and defense of Frank Kaminsky? Or was it the poor play of Kentucky’s guards in not being able to get star Karl-Anthony Towns the ball in the post down the stretch?
Well, it was all of the above. But the least discussed and, in my opinion, most important aspect was the latter.
POINT GUARD PLAY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Once upon a time, at all levels of basketball, if you had a big man who had an edge in talent and/or physical size, point guards were routinely taught to “give it to the big man,” especially if it was a guy like Towns. That is, a guy who plays hard, rebounds, runs the floor, can use both hands (a lost skill), etc.
In the “old days” of the 20th century, guards were taught to pound it inside and if someone on defense played good overplay defense the first time you looked in they were taught to look in a second or even a third time to get the ball to “the bigs.”
Now more of a nuanced play, virtually all guards trying to get the ball down low to the big guy take one look and if he’s “covered” they simply swing the ball around the other way. The patience in guard play has long ago left the building.
A TALE OF TWO GAMES
Let’s take a look at Kentucky’s final two games — against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. The Wildcats’ play over the final eight minutes of both was the difference between winning and losing.
Against Notre Dame, Towns was in the game for nine of the final 11 possessions, missing the two due to foul trouble and Calipari’s subsequent to play offense/defense. In those nine possessions, Towns got the ball in the post 11 times.
And, in those possessions, Towns scored four baskets, including one three-point play, and passed out of a double team to a wide-open Tyler Ulis for a 3-pointer.
Towns was, without question, the key to Kentucky’s comeback victory.
So, what happened against Wisconsin? After feeding Towns at will in the Notre Dame game, Kentucky’s guards totally went away from him. In Kentucky’s final 13 possessions, not counting the desperation possessions in the final seconds, Towns got the ball in the post a grand total of three times.
While the game analysts correctly pointed out that Kaminsky, Wisconsin’s excellent big man, was doing a good job “challenging” Towns, what they never said was that Kentucky’s guards, after looking in once, never looked in again during each possession, never realizing that Towns was still fighting for position, nor that he did get open literally a second or two after Kaminsky had shut off the potential post pass.
This was the death knell for Kentucky. By not being patient and getting the ball into Towns, it led to an eight-foot airball from Andrew Harrison on one possession and a 12-foot airball from Aaron Harrison as the shot clock was ending on another possession (and a poor shot that barely hit the front rim on still another possession). They were separate and apart from the airball 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison very late in the game.
On the three touches that Towns did get, he scored on Kaminsky, he was stripped by Kaminsky, with Kentucky recovering the loose ball, and he was fouled by Kaminsky, making one of two free throws.
While it is subtle and nuanced in today’s game, the inability of the guards to get Towns the ball down low towards the end of the game was the reason Kentucky lost the game. While Notre Dame had nobody like Kaminsky to guard Towns in the post, the “give-up” nature of the guards whenever Kaminsky overplayed Towns took Towns pretty much out of the game, although, to Towns’s credit, he had a number of offensive rebounds down the stretch.
From the time Towns scored with 6:35 left in the game until Kentucky’s next field goal with 56.2 seconds left, Towns touched the ball in the low post exactly once.
THE SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION THAT WASN’T
Kentucly fans will correctly complain about Nigel Hayes’s basket with 2:40 left. Clearly it was a shot-clock violation. But Kentucky had earlier gotten away with a clear flagrant foul by Trey Lyles, which was reviewed and inexplicably not assessed.
I’ve never been one to say that these things even out, because they don’t, but there should be a way that potential shot-clock violations are reviewed throughout the game.
Would that have made a difference? Well, we’ll never know. But, if reviewed, Kentucky would have been up two with the ball instead of tied. Wisconsin still had to win the game.
And Kentucky still had to lose it.
This, of course, reflects directly on coaching. If Calipari didn’t tell his guards to get Towns the ball, and, if he was overplayed initially by Kaminsky, to try again and again, he made a huge mistake. If he did tell them and they didn’t do it, then he should have put someone else into the game who would do it.
During the possession around the 1:25 mark, Kentucky inexplicably posted up Lyles. Wisconsin let him get the ball and, perhaps frustrated at the other end by Dekker, he simply ran Dekker over for a crucial offensive foul.
WHY WISCONSIN WON OFFENSIVELY
While for some reason Kaminsky was given most of the credit for the victory, it was, without question, Dekker’s athleticism and talent that lifted Wisconsin.
Calipari didn’t seem to understand that Lyles couldn’t guard Dekker. Dekker took Lyles to the basket with a stunning drive to cut Kentucky’s lead to two with 4:27 left. Then he hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:41 left to put Wisconsin up three. Finally, he blew right by Lyles and got fouled by Aaron Harrison. Dekker made one of two with 1:06 left to make it a two-possession game. Dekker also took that huge charge from Lyles down the stretch.
While Kentucky would cut it to one with 56 seconds left, it would never get over the hump.
NEXT YEAR FOR KENTUCKY
It was a tough pill to swallow for Kentucky but Wisconsin deserved to win the game.
While there probably won’t be a next time for Towns, maybe next year Kentucky will work more on getting their guards to get the ball to their best players down low – and, if at first they don’t succeed, try, try again.
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