[caption id="attachment_259286" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
The NCAA Tournament is down to 16 teams, and you can argue there is no more intriguing matchup in the Sweet 16 than Kentucky-Houston. Will P.J. Washington play? Can the young Wildcats handle the veteran Cougars? Can Houston handle the size, skill and overall talent of Kentucky? It won’t be too long before we find out.
And as Kentucky does get set to take the court against Houston, the one question everyone in the Bluegrass wants answered (outside of Washington’s status) is a simple one: What will it take for Kentucky to get a victory against Houston?
Thankfully, that’s why I’m here.
That’s because whenever Kentucky has had a big game throughout the season, I have often called a friend or two in the coaching industry and asked for scouting reports on that team. I did it prior to the North Carolina game
. And Auburn
. And Kansas
(ironically, Kentucky won all those games).
And I’m doing it again today.
Earlier this week I spoke to a coach who faced Houston earlier in the season, and after agreeing to keep him anonymous – no reference to his name or school – he gave me unfiltered access to his scouting report from the Houston game, overviewing who they are, what they do well and how they can be exposed.
Below, an anonymous opposing gives a scouting report on how to beat Houston:
For Houston it All Starts on the Defensive End of the Court
Throughout the season, Kentucky has played some of the best teams in the country, ranging from Duke to North Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and Kansas (Ok, well maybe not Kansas. They were terrible this year). Yet it isn’t an exaggeration to say that none of those teams play defense quite like Houston. The Cougars are – statistically speaking anyway –quite possibly the best defensive team in the country. They rank seventh nationally in points per game allowed (61 per contest) and No. 1 overall in field goal percentage defense (36.7 percent).
So for Kentucky, they better grab their hard hats and get ready to do battle. Houston is going to play hard for all 40 minutes.
“Understand that it’s going to be a dog fight all the way through,” the coach said. “And with a team like Houston, you’re never free. You’re never in the clear.”
In terms of what the Cougars do defensively, it really is nothing extra special, other than knowing their assignments and playing their butts off. Houston switches every ball screen, and my coaching buddy points out that they are going to try to cut off driving lanes and make you score “over them” not around them. If Ashton Hagans thinks he’s going to have one uncontested drive to the rim after another, he better think again.
More than anything however, when Houston is on the defensive end of the court, it isn’t about necessarily forcing the turnover on every play, but instead making life miserable for the opponent.
“It wasn’t always about steals,” he said. “It was about throwing off the other team’s rhythm. And I think that’s what they do… They’re jumping to the ball. They’re either denying the pass or they’re making you make tough twos.”
That’s also why…
[caption id="attachment_259221" align="aligncenter" width="3360"] (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
Kentucky’s best chance at offensive success is to continue to move the ball
Remember at halftime of the Wofford game last Saturday, when the CBS sideline reporter asked John Calipari about his team’s first half performance? And Calipari barked back that they “finally figured out how to pass the ball” late in the first half? Well, it really is no different against Houston.
“You’ve got to keep the ball moving, when things start breaking down and you’re going one-on-one, you’re in trouble,” he said. “You’ve got to create a lot of movement and a lot of cuts. You’ve got to be strong with the basketball.”
With that swarming defense, the No. 1 key is to keep the ball moving. If anyone tries to do too much themselves, it will be advantage Houston.
When Houston is on offense, it all starts with point guard Galen Robinson:
Look at a Houston box score, and the names that jump off the page are senior guard Corey Davis, who averaged a team-high 17 points per game and junior Armoni Brooks, who averaged 13 (more on them coming). But according to this coach, it all starts and ends with point guard Galen Robinson Jr.
Robinson averaged just under five assists per game, and did it with a simple approach: Get into the lane and read and react to what the defense gives him from there.
“He’s trying to go downhill,” the coach said. “He’s just trying to get into the paint and have you help. That’s his job because he’s got shooters on the wings.”
That also leads to what should be the biggest fear for the Kentucky coaching staff…
Every player on the court has to be sure not to leave their man on defense:
And again, it starts with Robinson and his ability to get into the lane.
Understand that no matter what you do, Robinson is going to get in the lane. It’s unavoidable.
But when it does happen, it’s important that Robinson’s defender is able to contain him, and that help doesn’t have to come from another defender. Because if it does, it means that it will leave someone else open.
“They know how to move without the ball,” the coach said. “And that’s a key too. They have shooters out there who can shoot. But they move without the ball really well.”
Therefore, you can’t lose your man on defense. Heck, you can’t even take your eyes off him.
“As soon as you turn your head to help for a second, they’re not in the same spot as they were before. They’re moving, they’re getting their shot ready.”
For Kentucky it isn’t just about identifying your man, but making sure to stay with him. Even when a play breaks down.
All five guys can rebound – so you better box out. Second chance offense is also where the Cougars get a lot of their three-point scoring from
Again, if you simply look at a Houston box score you’ll see that Houston isn’t overwhelmingly big. The three front-court players who play regularly in their rotation are Fabian White, Breaon Brady and Cedrick Alley Jr., and none are taller than 6’8. But what Houston does have is guards who are big for their position. Brooks is “only” 6’3, but with a crazy long wingspan. And off the bench, Nate Hinton and Dejon Jarreau are 6’5 each.
It also leads to a weird phenomenon with Houston: Their two leading rebounders are actually guards (Brooks and Hinton) and all five guys on the floor are capable of grabbing boards.
Well, capable of grabbing boards and making you pay for the second-chance opportunity afterward.
“They’re probably one of the more high-scoring teams off the second chance,” the coach said. “Because when their guys get those offensive rebounds they’re looking for their shooters.”
Therefore if you’re a Kentucky player you better secure rebounds. And if you don’t, you better hustle out to your man. Because Houston will make you pay otherwise.
Houston’s bigs aren’t specifically skilled, but they are tough
Another thing that jumps out when you watch the Cougars is that they just get so much production from their guards. Incredibly, their top five scorers are all in the back-court. As the coach explained, the bigs are more role players willing to do their jobs, set screens and crash the glass.
But what they lack in skill, they make up for in toughness.
“Their bigs are vets, they’re strong, they’re burly, they know their role,” the coach said. “They’re not going to try to do anything they can’t do. And they are some rebounding machines. They’re tough and physical.”
Like the guards, they also crash the glass. If anything, they know that’s their best chance at getting points onto the stat sheet.
“It’s pretty obvious that Sampson said to them “Ok, you want the ball. You’ve got to go get it.” And that’s the thing, they crash like they no other.”
Let’s start to wrap breaking down Houston’s two best players: Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks
Because woooooah buddy was this coach impressed.
As a matter of fact, he took it one step further than “impressed.” The coach, who spent time in the SEC during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons (he left this past season) said that he believed those guards were as good as any that he saw during that stretch.
“Brooks and Davis are two of the best guards that we’ve seen,” he said. “Being in the SEC, those two dudes were just as good as the guys I saw in the SEC. I saw [Tremont] Waters and [Collin] Sexton and De’Aaron Fox. But the way they play, they can kill you from the outside, they are really aggressive and really confident.”
Now before people get upset, let’s clarify a couple things: First off, the coach was talking about all those guys as college guards. So before anyone says to me “Yeah, OK, some dude at Houston is really as good as De’Aaron Fox, who is averaging 18 points a game in the NBA right now,” just take a chill pill. Davis and Brooks are both 21 and 22-year-old grown men, who are being compared to Fox and Collin Sexton when they were in college.
Two, it’s not as though Brooks and Davis don’t have weaknesses.
The coach pointed out that Brooks has a long release on his jump shot, and that if you can crowd his space, it can make it difficult for him to get his jumper off. And Davis, while strong isn’t necessarily very big, standing at just 6’1.
“With Davis you’d rather him get closer and try to score over you instead of [letting him shoot threes],” the coach said.
Finally, as mentioned up top, just be ready to do battle
Of all the points that the coach discussed, the one he most hammered home was the one mentioned up top: There is nothing super-complex to what Houston does. They just play hard and bust their butt.
And if you’re not ready to do battle, they will make you look bad.
“Everything about them man, it’s physical,” he said. “If you don’t have the physicality to match those guys you’re going to be in trouble.”
Kentucky has been one of the mentally toughest teams in college basketball this year.
As long as they bring that toughness, they should be ready for anything Houston throws at them.