UK's, Duke's close calls show their flaws
Before we go any further, let's get one very cliché thing straight: Wins are wins.
In three months, none of us will much remember, or much care, that Kentucky spent most of Feast Week Monday wobbling behind Cleveland State in Rupp Arena. It won't matter that the Wildcats trailed 54-44 with 7 minutes, 30 seconds left in the second half to a team with losses to San Francisco and Eastern Michigan already under its belt. We won't bring up the fact that UK couldn't get more than a point or two of separation from the Vikings until there were two minutes left, when the Wildcats did something -- make a 3-point shot being that something -- they had mostly failed to do for the previous 38.
And yet, Monday night's win in Lexington, Ky. — much like Duke's 91-90 survival of Vermont a night before -- provided perfect examples of why the sport's two most high-profile programs in this season or any other are, despite all their talent, nowhere near deep-tourney guarantees when the aforementioned big fish hit the proverbial March pan. Both games showed the issues Duke and Kentucky face, where their weaknesses currently lie, and how those weaknesses, if left untended, could become crippling.
Let's start with Kentucky. The Wildcats' talent is immense; Julius Randle remains a force to behold. But, when the opponents are more than mere lambs to slaughter, when they can play good transition defense and sink into double- and triple-teams on Randle, the Wildcats have very little by way of response.
If Kentucky had a flow chart of offensive woe, it would go a little something like this:
1. The opposing defense sprints back, prevents Kentucky's secondary break (or worse), and induces the Wildcats into a half-court set.
2. Randle gets the ball.
Usually, this is as far as it needs to go. Randle has the whole unstoppable-force thing down pat; there isn't much need for a plan B. But when Kentucky does need another option -- as it did in the first half against Michigan State on Nov. 12, or Monday, when Randle shot just 3-of-10 from the field and needed 9-of-11 from the free throw line to score 15 points against Cleveland State -- you get to the part where opposing defenders sink deep into the lane and dare Randle to kick to the perimeter. Which brings us to number …
3. Kentucky shoots a long-range jumper.
This is, to date, the Wildcats' Achilles' heel. Before Monday, Kentucky ranked No. 19 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, but just 213th from 3. The Cats haven't shot a ton of 3s -- around 30 percent of their overall field goal attempts are from deep -- but it is nonetheless a weakness, one that gives defenses some semblance of hope in what would otherwise be a hope-free proposition on the low block.
Will this change? I'd bet on yes. John Calipari is fond of calling freshman wing James Young the best shooter in the country. That may be patently untrue -- more to do with confidence-building than Young (who is more useful when attacking the rim anyway) actually being better than, say, Brady Heslip or Doug McDermott -- but it is fair to expect him to shoot better than the 13-for-42 mark he's put up thus far. Aaron Harrison was also a much better shooter in high school than he's showcased thus far; were it not for his game-sealing 3 on Monday night, he and brother Andrew would have combined to go 0-for-7 from deep.
No, really, it genuinely is just that simple. I could probably just tell you that the Blue Devils gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at Cameron Indoor; that should drive things home. But let's dig in.
The Blue Devils are the nation's most potent offense to date, averaging 1.21 points per possession. They make 60.6 percent of their 2s; they average about 71 possessions per game; they feature Jabari Parker, perhaps the most purely talented offensive player in college basketball since Kevin Durant. They're a joy to watch.
They also rank -- brace yourself -- 176th on defense. That's Ken Pomeroy's adjusted opponent math (as are the numbers you see above, as always) but let's list those opponents anyway: Davidson, Kansas, Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville, East Carolina and, of course, Vermont. Nothing about what Duke does defensively, save guarding 3s, is above average relative to the rest of college basketball -- from team 1 to team 345. The convenient thing about these numbers is they merely highlight what you see when you watch Duke play defense: Awful ball-screen hedges, too many switches, late rotations, late help, no interior -- you name it.
Two years ago, the Blue Devils ended the season ranked 81st defensively. That was the worst Coach K-coached defense in a decade, and probably much longer than that. If the season ended today, this group, for all its offensive brilliance, might go down as the worst defensive team of Mike Krzyzewski's career.
Fortunately for both Duke and Kentucky, the season doesn't end today. There is still more than enough of time to iron this stuff out. In a few months, we might not remember any of it. We might not even remember just how close both teams came to back-to-back home upsets in late November. The wins will be just that. Wins. But if these teams do have issues for any extended period of time, they will be for the same reasons you saw Sunday and Monday nights. Stay tuned.