Tuesday night at Rupp Arena was a lot of fun. The fans were into it, the place was nearly full, and the Kentucky Wildcats dominated a quality opponent. Before the game, we discussed how the recent record against marquee non-conference opponents was not pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly.
However, it is now time to put statistics like that in the rearview mirror. This Kentucky team is nothing like the ones from the last three seasons. They proved that in a major way on a national stage against the #8 Miami Hurricanes winning 95-73.
The ‘Cats struck first building an early 10-point lead before the Hurricanes quickly erased it with an 18-2 run in a four-minute span. Big Blue Nation was left with their head spinning as the Wildcats went from 10 up to six down in such a short period of time. However, Kentucky finished the half on an 8-0 run to take a 42-37 lead into the break and never looked back. Five scorers were in double-figures with a sixth, Adou Thiero, finishing with nine points. The Wildcats assisted on 26 of 37 made field goals while turning it over just eight times. While those numbers have become commonplace in Kentucky’s 6-1 start to the season we should not normalize how impressive they are. What we are seeing from this team offensively is really, really special.
As we do after each game it is time to step inside the KSR Film Room and break down the most recent contest. Kentucky once again dominated the game on the perimeter led by Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham off of the bench. Furthermore, the offense continues to execute at a really high level both in transition and in the halfcourt. Finally, we will take a look at the Wildcats’ best defensive performance of the season and highlight how they were able to slow down one of the best offenses in college basketball. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at Kentucky’s big win over the Miami Hurricanes.
Offensive Execution Remains Impressive
All offense looks better when you have really good players. As the old saying goes, the Jimmys and the Joes are more important than the X’s and the O’s. This Kentucky basketball team has enough offensive talent to make any scheme or set of play calls look effective. However, Coach Calipari and his staff deserve a bunch of credit for adapting to this mostly 5-out, spread style of offense that plays to the strengths of each individual. Playing four or five guys at all times who are capable of dribbling, passing, or shooting puts the opposing defense in a lot of uncomfortable situations. That is how you put together one of the best, most efficient, offenses in the country.
Adou Thiero brought the juice early in the game for the Wildcats. The Miami Hurricanes were hitting shots, but Thiero was taking it right at them utilizing his size, strength, and athleticism. This possession is a perfect example of offensive execution we haven’t seen in the past couple of seasons. Not only is this a great baseline cut by Thiero, but the fact that he simply has the space to cut into is what stands out. Without a 5-out offense, there would have been someone in the way of Thiero making this great play.
The basketball IQ of this team is something that should not be taken for granted. That is also a skill that the coaching staff deserves credit for developing. Antonio Reeves probably wouldn’t have made this play a year ago in Lexington. However, here you see him sneak in to set a flare screen that opens up a drive to the basket for DJ Wagner. Using Reeves, one of the elite shooters in college basketball, as a screener is an excellent offensive tool. His defender’s unwillingness to help at all towards the rim is a big reason why Wagner had this driving lane.
A lot of times effective offense is simple offense. When you have talented players you don’t need intricate set plays to manufacture a bucket. Instead, you can run some action as an entry into your Motion and let them play “random” basketball. That is what you see here with this Horns set. The initial ballscreen with Jordan Burks rolling and Tre Mitchell popping is just meant to get the ball moving. Mitchell then moves the ball to Justin Edwards and the Miami Hurricanes miscommunicate the switch at the point of the screen. That miscommunication only happens because of Mitchell’s ability to pick-and-pop. Edwards then takes advantage of the defensive lapse in concentration by turning the corner to his left hand and slamming it home.
When scouting the Miami Hurricanes we talked a lot about the importance of communicating in transition and not losing certain shooters like #24 Pack or #5 Poplar. Kentucky held those two to a combined 0-5 from three-point range on Tuesday night. Instead, the Wildcats flipped the script and made the Hurricanes break down in their transition defense. Here you can see Pack match up with Adou Thiero on the wing despite having Antonio Reeves wide open in the corner. The ‘Cats take full advantage of the poor communication as Reeves splashes the wide-open three-point attempt.
Reed Sheppard & Rob Dillingham are Stars
There were varying degrees of optimism about what Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham would bring to the table as freshmen at Kentucky. Sheppard was a McDonald’s All-American and Dillingham would have been if not ineligible due to playing at Overtime Elite. They were highly recruited and would have been prized recruits at other programs. However, at Kentucky, they were the fourth and fifth most lauded signees in a historically good class. It hasn’t taken long though for them to emerge as arguably this team’s two best players. Dreams of sophomore year Sheppard or Dillingham are quickly being torn to shreds. These guys are playing like first-round NBA Draft picks.
Reed Sheppard is going to make you pay for going under ballscreens or handoffs. Kentucky hasn’t had a primary ball handler that is this good of a shooter anytime recently. If he keeps shooting anywhere near the clip he is currently that statement will be changed to anytime ever. This is a quick lapse in concentration by Miami’s point guard Nijel Pack but it costs the Hurricanes three points. It is a very deep three, but that open of a look is a high-percentage shot for Sheppard.
Similar to the clip above, here is Rob Dillingham making the Miami Hurricanes pay for not switching out aggressively enough. Prior to the game, we discussed how Kentucky would need to switch out aggressively to take away shooters like #24 Pack and #5 Poplar. However, the same is true when guarding the Wildcats. You can see the Miami defender switch without any aggression whatsoever which triggers Dillingham to rise up and shoot the three. That is why you recruit the best players.
There simply isn’t much you can do defensively to stop this offensive action. Rob Dillingham attacks the Horns ballscreen aggressively which drags two defenders with him. That leaves Tre Mitchell wide open on the pop at the top of the key. Having a true pick-and-pop 5-man is such a luxury on the offensive end of the floor.
On the very next offensive possession from the previous clip, the ‘Cats go back to the two-man game between Rob Dillingham and Tre Mitchell. Mitchell is open once again on the pop but Miami closes out more aggressively to take away the initial catch-and-shoot three-point shot. However, Mitchell goes directly into a fake handoff and turns his back to the basket. Dillingham circles along the perimeter to the wing for a kickout and knocks in the shot. Again, there simply isn’t much you can do to combat this defensively.
Best Defensive Execution of the Season
Seven games don’t equate to a full sample size, but we pretty much know this Kentucky team isn’t going to be known for what they do defensively. Some of that has to do with their potentially historic offensive firepower, but also the simple fact that they will likely be average at best on the defensive end. Even after one, two, or all three seven-footers return this team is going to strive to simply be “good enough” on the defensive end of the floor. However, on Tuesday night, they turned in a very impressive defensive performance against one of the most potent offenses in the country. Let’s take a look at what led to Kentucky’s success against the Miami Hurricanes.
DJ Wagner set the tone for Kentucky defensively early on in the game. His excellent play at the rim to block #24 Pack’s shot is obviously the memorable part of this clip. However, his closeout on the perimeter is just as impressive and important to making this play. Kentucky was able to essentially render Pack useless in this matchup.
Rob Dillingham applies ball pressure unlike anyone else on this Kentucky team. He was heating up the ball at the beginning of the possession, fought through the ballscreen, and then helped on the drive as well to make #15 Omier give it up. Reed Sheppard was also heavily involved and had a perfect closeout to the corner before ultimately swiping the ball away from the Hurricanes. Forcing turnovers is going to be a calling card of this Wildcats team defensively.
You cannot teach what happens in this clip. Guards simply do not block three-point attempts like this very often. Reed Sheppard has now done it multiple times as a Wildcat. There is something very special about his instincts and reactions on the defensive end of the floor.
Coach Calipari and his staff deserve a ton of credit for Tuesday night’s game plan. Even as the Miami Hurricanes were scoring early in the game they were scoring contested 2s, not 3s. When you consistently make them take shots like you see here they will eventually miss enough for you to win. Kentucky did a great job of staying between the ball and the basket and forcing the Hurricanes into contested jump shots. Limiting them to only 19 three-point attempts is impressive.