|Monday, December 17
Kentucky owns keys to beating Duke
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com
Duke is recognized as the top team in the nation right now, but the Blue Devils can be beaten, and Kentucky is one of the teams capable of doing it. But to beat Duke, a team must adjust the way it defends. It will take a great effort by any team to guard Duke's shooters and still limit penetration; rebound the ball, and handle the Blue Devils' pressure.
Kentucky is more than capable of such an effort.
The Wildcats have great strength and depth up front, something Duke lacks. The Wildcats can press full-court, using a 1-2-1-1 matchup (usually after a made two-point field goal) or a 2-2-1 press (usually after a made 3-pointer). But when you get right down to it, Kentucky is a smash-mouth, halfcourt defensive team that can really guard people.
Tubby Smith employs what he calls "ball-line defense", where the defense sinks to the line of the ball, staying between the ball and the basket. Kentucky's defense is designed to limit penetration, by the pass or the dribble. The challenge for Kentucky, against anyone, is to play the "ball-line" philosophy and still get out to defend 3-point shooters. The Wildcats are also a solid rebounding team, with the ability to throw bodies at opponents, and Smith has the flexibility to mix lineups depending upon who is playing well at any particular time.
Under Smith, a truly outstanding coach, Kentucky does a magnificent job on the defensive end.
Offensively, Kentucky is versatile. It runs a good break, a very good secondary break, and solid sets in the halfcourt with pass-and-cut principles that are tough to defend. Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans are Smith's most reliable scorers, and Kentucky's offensive flow is determined by how those two play.
Prince is a difficult match-up for most teams because he is 6-foot-9 and long-armed. He has the wingspan of a 7-footer but has small-forward skills. Prince (18.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.3 spg) is a lefty who can really shoot it if he is allowed time to get his feet set. If pressured, Prince is less effective on the perimeter but can go inside and score over people with his length and quickness. Bogans (14.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 40.7 percent FGs) is a slasher with streaky perimeter shooting ability. Bogans can rise up on drives for his shot and is strong. He gambles for steals on defense, but he is a very good rebounding guard.
Inside, Smith can go with Marvin Stone, Jules Camara, Marquis Estill, Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels. Kentucky has size and depth with this crew, and plenty of fouls to give. These are the players who have to give Duke major concern, because of their sheer size and numbers. If Kentucky can make Tuesday night a halfcourt game, pound it inside and hammer the offensive glass, the Wildcats can hurt Duke.
The area in which Duke will feel more comfortable will be at the point. Kentucky has two very different looks at point guard with J.P. Blevins and Cliff Hawkins. Blevins is an average athlete but a good shooter struggling with his shot. Hawkins is a better athlete who can penetrate and change ends, but he is not an offensive threat.
Duke has an incredibly skilled and athletic group of guards, and that makes the difference for Mike Krzyzewski. Jason Williams struggled with his shot early, perhaps because of the hand injury he suffered in preseason, or perhaps because he was feeling pressure being the nation's coverboy. In any case, Williams has played his best basketball of the season the past 10 days.
Williams is an extraordinary athlete who explodes to the basket off the dribble. He is incredibly strong for his size, and can pull up and shoot the deep ball Even with some shooting woes, Williams is averaging 20.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the field. He turns the ball over 3.4 times per game, but that is a small price to pay for his creativity and explosiveness. What makes Williams extraordinary is his short memory. Williams can have an awful stretch that would make others retreat and play differently, but he has the ability to step up in key moments with confidence, as if he had been drilling shots the entire game.
His running mate, Chris Duhon, has taken over the point duties to let Williams work off the ball, and to better distribute it to the full compliment of weapons. Duhon averages 9.3 points and 6.1 assists, and has a near 3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. With Mike Dunleavy, perhaps the most versatile player in the nation; Carlos Boozer, an excellent finisher; and Dahntay Jones, a high-flyer, Duhon has plenty of choices if he doesn't feel like shooting it himself.
Duke runs a few sets in the halfcourt, with multiple options and counters, but the Blue Devils are primarily a penetrate-and-pitch team. The Devils' sets are usable against both man and zone defenses, employing a lot of ball screens and basket cuts designed to take advantage of their ability to attack off the dribble, collapse defenses and kick to open shooters. Defensively, the Blue Devils play mostly man-to-man, with very good pressure on the ball, and denial on the wings. Boozer can block some shots and is a decent post defender, but Duke's post defense relies upon ball pressure to limit vision into the post.
Key matchup: Williams/Duhon vs. Hawkins/Blevins.
Kentucky will try to pound it inside and attack Boozer, but to do so, Kentucky will first have to handle pressure and get the ball to an entry in order to get an angle and see into the post. If Hawkins and Blevins can handle the Blue Devils guards' pressure without turning it over, or getting pushed too far out, it will go a long way toward a Kentucky victory.
Key stats: Rebounding, 3-point shooting and free throws.
Kentucky has all of the tools to be an outstanding rebounding team. Not only do the Wildcats have size and depth up front, they are strong at the guard spots. Gerald Fitch is an outstanding guard rebounder, as are Bogans and Erik Daniels. Kentucky must take advantage of its guards' ability to hit the boards on both ends. Rebounds mean higher percentage shots and more fouls. To win, Kentucky needs to limit Duke from the 3-point line, especially Williams and Dunleavy (who take half of Duke's shots from behind the arc), and keep the Blue Devils off of the foul line. Duke shoots 26 free throws per game and scores almost half of its points off of made 3s and free throws.
What to watch For: How Kentucky guards Williams and Dunleavy, and how they attack Boozer.
Kentucky will have to give substantial weakside help to stop Duke's penetration but cannot afford to help much off of Dunleavy or Williams. The Wildcats will probably have to help off of Dahntay Jones. Don't be surprised to see Kentucky play some zone, extending to 3-point shooters. Kentucky will also go after Boozer, who does not want to foul out and has allowed some opposing big guys opportunities inside because of it.