ATLANTA — Teams have done everything this season to try to trip up Kentucky’s thoroughbreds.
They’ve thrown a zone at them, slowed down the pace and tried to get physical with them. All have been efforts to combat the considerable talent edge the Cats possessed.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout Kentucky’s 35-2 march, it’s that its best competition has come from teams with comparable talent. North Carolina, Indiana and Vanderbilt gave the Cats the most fits because they had the horses to run with the Cats.
Baylor’s Bears, talent wise, are just as mighty as those teams.
“This team is very talented, very athletic, very long,” freshman forward Anthony Davis said. “It’ll be a great matchup for us. It’s going to be a battle of who wants it more.”
Kentucky’s desire to win has never been questioned this season, but there’s little disputing that this group of Cats would win quite a few games on talent alone.
UK’s frontline features the nation’s leading shot blocker in Davis, a preseason All-American in Terrence Jones and a do-everything star in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The trio averages just over 6-foot-8 in height, and all are blessed with an ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor.
Few teams can match up with that, but Baylor can. With a frontcourt that features Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy, Baylor measures 6-11, 6-9 and 6-7, respectively, in the paint.
“Obviously, Acy is what he is,” John Calipari said of the punishing forward. “And the other guys are all in that mold that I like, which are long. The longer the better, and that’s what they are.”
All three Baylor forwards are athletic, multi-dimensional threats like the Cats, and all three were highly regarded coming out of high school.
“We are basically all the same type of players in terms of athleticism,” said Miller, a freshman who considered attending Kentucky. “I think that we are just as talented as Kentucky’s team. They are a great team and we are a great team. We are not going down without a fight, and I am pretty sure that they aren’t either. It is going to be a great game.”
It will surely be one that just about every NBA general manager will have his eyes on. According to NBA Draft analyst Chad Ford, five players in Sunday’s game are among the top 18 prospects for the 2012 draft.
That’s led many to call Sunday’s Elite Eight game UK’s biggest challenge in terms of athleticism, length and talent since the North Carolina matchup in early December. Coach Cal didn’t disagree with that assessment Saturday
“What I’ve seen on tape, pretty impressed, not only that they’re talented but how they play,” Calipari said. “They play hard. They play to their strengths. They attack.”
It’s hard to imagine a game played at a faster tempo than Friday’s track meet between Kentucky and Indiana, but that’s exactly what Sunday could have in store. Baylor scores just under 75 points per game and ranks 10th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
“That’s how I like to play,” UK freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. “That’s when I’m at my best, when I’m in transition. I feel like that’s when this team is at its best. Tomorrow we’re going to try to push the ball like we would any other game and try to put a lot of points on the board.”
Two potential X-factors are the backcourt and Baylor’s zone.
While NBA scouts will surely drool over the frontcourt talent in Sunday’s showdown, both teams feature backcourt generals who are playing as well as any point guard in the country. Teague is averaging 16.7 points and 6.0 assists in the NCAA Tournament, but he’ll have his work cut out for him when he faces the speedy Pierre Jackson, who averages a team-high 13.6 points and 5.9 assists.
“Jackson is a water bug,” Calipari said.
And then there’s Brady Heslip at the two, a prolific 3-point shooter hitting 45.4 percent of his long-range attempts. His With Heslip, Baylor has five players averaging double figures. UK is the only team in the nation with six double-figure scorers.
“If you him an inch, he gets it all,” Coach Cal said. “He had 27 against Colorado and I think he bounced the ball twice. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
At times Baylor will employ a matchup-like zone to capitalize on its length. Coach Cal uses a much different style on defense with his team’s length, often preferring to go with straight man-to-man defense, but Calipari said Baylor’s “morphed” zone works.
“If you do get to the rim, there’s going to be length there,” Calipari said. “One of the things we do in our zone offense is we’re throwing a lot of lobs, so that length has to be back, but that length is on the wings too now. So now all of a sudden you’ve got 6-9 and 6-8 on the wings, and that is a huge zone. It’s created havoc for a lot of teams.”
Team stats and rankings
(national rankings in parentheses)
|Scoring offense||77.8 (15)||74.8 (34)|
|Scoring defense||60.4 (23)||64.9 (106)|
|FG percentage||48.7 (9)||47.0 (34)|
|FG percentage defense||37.5 (1)||41.5 (94)|
|3-point percentage||37.7 (41)||38.5 (24)|
|3-point percentage defense||31.5 (58)||33.3 (130)|
|FT percentage||72.9 (50)||75.1 (23)|
|Rebound margin||+7.2 (9)||+5.5 (27)|
|Steals per game||6.0 (220)||7.6 (66)|
|Blocks per game||8.6 (1)||4.7 (41)|
|Assists per game||13.4 (123)||15.0 (33)|
|Turnover margin||+0.4 (161)||+0.4 (163)|
|Points per game||Anthony Davis (14.3)||Pierre Jackson (13.6)|
|Rebounds per game||Anthony Davis (10.1)||Perry Jones III (7.6)|
|Field-goal percentage||Anthony Davis (63.6)||Quincy Acy (57.4)|
|3-point percentage||Doron Lamb (47.0)||Brady Heslip (45.4)|
|Free-throw percentage||Doron Lamb (84.2)||Brady Heslip (94.4)|
|Assists per game||Marquis Teague (4.8)||Brady Heslip (5.9)|
|Blocks per game||Anthony Davis (4.6)||Quincy Acy (1.8)|
|Steals per game||Anthony Davis (1.3)||Pierre Jackson (1.8)|