Sunday, March 18, 2012
Kentucky has all the answers vs. Iowa State
By Brian Bennett
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- What are you gonna do?
Seriously, how are you going to beat Kentucky in this NCAA tournament? That's what Iowa State -- and maybe the rest of America -- must be thinking after watching the preposterously gifted Wildcats break out a new weapon and push back the Cyclones' upset bid with extreme force in Saturday's 87-71 third-round NCAA tournament victory.
Just when it looked like Iowa State was going to create the first real drama of the weekend at the KFC Yum! Center and put the No. 1 overall seed on red alert, the Wildcats unleashed a 10-minute tsunami. Along the way, they threw safety nets over all their potential postseason pitfalls, such as:
Point guard play. John Calipari's best teams have had great point guards, but Big Blue fans haven't been sold on Marquis Teague most of the season. Truthfully, he's been solid most of the way after a shaky beginning. But he's rarely been much more than a game manager, and the fear was that his lack of offense and decision-making might prove a liability in a tournament often dominated by guards.
Teague, though, had his best game of the season against Iowa State. He erupted for 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, scoring eight more points than he had in any other game of his freshman season. He finished in transition and sank jump shots as ISU sagged off him. He also had seven assists with only two turnovers.
Teague knew skeptics had wondered whether he would be the team's weak link.
"I heard a lot people say that, but I knew my time would come if I just continued to work," he said. "On a team like this, they don't really need me to score. I know I can step up and do that, but because we have so many scorers around, I don't have to."
Kentucky already is really, really good. If Teague is going to operate like an elite point guard, it's scary good.
"He did a great job not only scoring, but being a floor general," teammate Darius Miller said. "When he's playing like that, we're a totally different team."
Outside shooting. Vanderbilt beat the Wildcats in the SEC tournament final in large part because the Commodores went to a zone and Kentucky missed shots late. Iowa State collapsed its defense to try to handle Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, hoping UK's guards would have an off night.
They didn't. Miller, who was slumping during the early rounds of the SEC tournament, and Doron Lamb combined to hit eight of their 13 3-point attempts. The Wildcats made their first six 3s of the second half and were 10-for-20 for the game, shooting 64 percent overall in the final 20 minutes.
Freshman point guard Marquis Teague sent the tournament's remaining teams a warning with a career night in Kentucky's impressive victory.
"We don't shoot a lot because we get to the rim, we throw lobs," Calipari said. "We play different -- we get a lot in transition. If you make us shoot 3s, we will shoot them."
And if they're making them as well as they did Saturday night, forget it.
Terrence Jones' psyche. The talented sophomore forward has had a tendency to disappear in big moments, as he did in the loss at Indiana in December. But Calipari rightly described Jones as a beast for the way he's played so far in March.
In his past six games, Jones is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds while attacking the rim. He scored only eight against Iowa State, mainly because he concentrated on trying to slow down the Cyclones' version of Charles Barkley, Royce White. But Jones ignited the team's backbreaking 18-2 second-half run with a drive for a dunk and a lob to Davis. He also pulled down 11 rebounds.
"I've just been trying to be a little hungrier and step up my role on this team," he said. "I felt I was letting my team down by not being as aggressive and thinking too much. I wanted to change that for [the] postseason and get us as deep as I could."
Three-point defense. Anybody can go down in March if another team starts raining home 3s. Indiana did it in the Dec. 10 upset in Bloomington and just might do it again next week in Atlanta.
But Calipari has the luxury of letting his players defend tightly on the perimeter, because Davis and Jones can erase mistakes if they are beaten on dribble penetration. Iowa State is one of the most prolific 3-point-shooting teams in the country, with four shooters ready to snipe from outside at any given time. The Cyclones went just 3-of-22 from the 3-point line Saturday night. After making six of their first seven shots of the second half to tie the score at 42, they hit only 28 percent the rest of the game.
Kentucky was content to let White get his points -- he had 23 -- and stop the shooters.
"Coach Cal told us that it was just like last year against Ohio State," Davis said. "If Sully [Jared Sullinger] gets 30 and nobody else can score, then they can't win. So we just tried to contain their [guards] with high hands and make it hard for them to score."
Foul trouble. Calipari usually goes only seven deep, and on Saturday, his top six guys played all but three minutes of the game. Lamb picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, and Jones fouled out after 33 minutes. That's pretty close to the doomsday scenario, yet Miller's fiery play off the bench more than made up for Lamb's extended absence. And even though White is built like a bull and tried to go into Davis' chest, Davis continued to get his hands on the ball without fouling. He had only two fouls Saturday night.
Kentucky is not unbeatable, and its next opponent definitely knows that. While the players said all the right things Saturday night about the rematch, it's no secret the Wildcats have been itching for another shot at the Hoosiers. Expect them to be incredibly motivated for next week in Atlanta. An effort similar to the one they gave in Louisville should be plenty good enough.
"[Calipari] after the game came up to me and told me that's the best game they played all year," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "They can't play any better than they did."
The rest of the tournament better hope that's true.