In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team’s postseason run,CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK’s journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.
John Calipari’s last two teams could not have been more different offensively.
The 2009-10 edition of Kentucky was a deep, talented juggernaut that could outrun teams in the open floor with John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, as well as bruise opponents inside with DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. The 2010-11 Wildcats relied more on half-court finesse with Brandon Knight leading a squad full of soft shooters.
Even with all the differences, the two squads saw their seasons end in much the same way: with missed shot after missed shot.
In losses to West Virginia and Connecticut, the Cats combined to shoot just 13 for 59 (22.0 percent) from 3-point range and 20 for 41 (48.8 percent) from the free-throw line.
The common element between the two heartbreaking defeats: the venue.
The two games were played more than 1,600 miles apart in the Carrier Dome and Reliant Stadium, but the similarities between the two cavernous football stadiums turned NCAA Tournament sites are unmistakable.
How much those poor shooting performances had to do with where they occurred is up for debate, but Coach Cal’s latest team is about to find out what it’s like to play a basketball game in a place that feels more like an aircraft hangar than a gym. The next step in UK’s heretofore dominant run in the NCAA Tournament will have to be taken in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the Louisville Cardinals.
UK is going to employ the same overall travel routine that has worked so well on the road this year, but the Cats are going to make a conscious effort to spend more time learning the lay of the land.
“The arenas with these raised floors change things somewhat and I think you’ve got to get in there and do as much shooting as you can do,” Calipari said. “Last year I didn’t realize that.”
The altered sightlines of a building like the Superdome create a different experience, and the raised floor built on top of the dome’s turf surface only serves to make it more distinct. In the three games last year in Houston, the four teams combined to shoot 119 for 347, a frigid 34.1 percent.
On the positive side, the NCAA has allowed for more practice time for the four teams that have advanced to New Orleans. UK will spend a total of 140 minutes on the Superdome floor on Thursday and Friday in addition to the team’s customary shoot around on Saturday before the same itself.
UK also has the added advantage of having played in similar environments. Not only did Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller play in last year’s Final Four (Miller also played in the Carrier Dome the year before), but the Cats played their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in the Georgia Dome. Though the floor there wasn’t raised, the experience could pay off.
“It will be a big advantage,” said Lamb, who hit 3-of-5 3-point attempts in last season’s national semifinal. “It didn’t really affect my jumper really since we played there last year, so I was used to it. But I think we have a little advantage for that though.”
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who did not know the floor was raised on a Final Four teleconference on Monday, sounded concerned with playing in a dome.
“I think it is the depth perception, without question,” Pitino said. “I think that’s something you have to get used to. Fortunately, we have played in Syracuse and we’ve seen it before. But the worst thing about it is the wide-open space.”
Based on the lengths UK is known to pursue for the sake of its basketball program’s success, you would have to have walked on the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center to know Coach Cal was joking about another way he has prepared his team.
“We’ve got a court in here that is six feet off the ground,” Calipari said. “We built one, only Kentucky can do that. I’m not sure if we’re allowed to do that, I didn’t ask anybody, but we are playing on an elevated court right now in our practice facility.”
Calipari knows placing too much of a focus on where the game will be played puts the UK in peril of not thinking enough about who it will play. At the end of the day, the shots the Cats make and miss will have more to do with how they attack the defense Louisville plays.
“It is nothing else other than a basketball game on a raised court,” Calipari said.” Let’s go. Let’s play the game. We are going to play against a team that is going to be aggressive, press us, man-to-man, and get up in us.”