College Basketball Nation: Marcus Lee

Why Kentucky will win

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky’s ridiculous run to Monday’s national championship game against UConn seemed probable and even likely last summer. Then, John Calipari had an unprecedented number of McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects in the same freshman class. Add them to returning sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein and a lengthy stay in the Big Dance seemed possible.

But the Wildcats took five months to finally achieve this lofty potential. They knocked off Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to secure a slot in the national title game. Now the same Wildcats who lost to Arkansas and South Carolina toward the end of the SEC season have found a rhythm at the most crucial juncture of the season.

“I just knew that we had the talent and it was just a couple of things missing,” Aaron Harrison said Sunday. “We trusted Coach [Calipari] and he just put it all together for us. We just went out there and just started fighting and playing harder and playing for each other. I think that was the biggest thing.”

The Huskies are a team full of solid defenders who can create chaos for opposing players. Shabazz Napier will be the best player on the floor, too. But the Wildcats have the length, overall talent and depth to win their second national title in three seasons and ninth overall.

The path to victory

For months, Florida had been the best team in America. Until it met UConn Saturday for the second time this season. Napier didn’t score a point for the first 10 minutes of the game. And the Gators had a 16-4 lead early.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lee
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Lee and the Kentucky big men will make life in the paint difficult for the Huskies.
But then the Huskies ruined the Gators. Napier and Ryan Boatright harassed Scottie Wilbekin (2-of-9 shooting, three turnovers). They were physical inside and DeAndre Daniels (20 points, 10 rebounds) was a monster.

That trio is the key to the national title game.

Kentucky has to corral Napier. That’s the first step. He has done a great job of getting to the free throw line, creating shots inside of the arc and hitting 3-pointers. Florida did a good job of containing Napier early. But the Gators failed to protect the rim.

The Wildcats won’t have that problem. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are big guards who have the agility and athleticism to stick Napier and disrupt UConn’s offense. And Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Poythress will contest every shot at the rim. The Wildcats won’t let Boatright and Napier penetrate the way they did against the Gators on Saturday.

And their length will frustrate Daniels, too. If Kentucky can limit the effectiveness of those three players, beginning with Napier, it will be in a good position to win in the end.

But the Wildcats are also a matchup nightmare for a UConn team that will struggle with their size and brawn. Johnson and Randle will just keep attacking until they get to the rim and/or foul line.

Louisville defeated Connecticut three times by a combined 55 points this season. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell had a double-double in each game.

Plus the Harrison twins and James Young are potent in transition. When the Wildcats run, they can score in impressive flurries.

“First of all, we want to get back in transition,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday. “That’s our No. 1 key every game, especially [with] them. They got a lot of great athletes. They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability to get inside the paint. So we want to locate, want to get back, want to keep them in front of us, and then play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top.”

Monday’s title game will be played above the rim on both ends of the floor. Kentucky will penetrate and get easy buckets inside, while denying UConn similar opportunities with its defense.

The Wildcats have been in battles for the past three weeks. But they’ve survived them all. The Huskies can pressure backcourts and stop offenses from flowing. They can get hot from the 3-point line. Plus, Napier has been a master at getting to the free throw line, and he rarely misses when he gets there (86.9 percent this season).

The Wildcats, however, continue to overwhelm veteran, balanced units. They’ve faced adversity in every game they’ve played in the NCAA tournament. Yet they’ve prevailed in every situation.

Randle can get a bucket when he wants. Johnson cleans up behind him. Lee is the perfect energy guy who can give Calipari 10-15 solid minutes. Young is a playmaker. The Harrisons are the anchors now.

They’re difficult to defend in zone defense because they’re so athletic, quick and big inside. They’re difficult to guard man-to-man for the same reasons.

The Huskies have been impressive throughout this magical run to the national title game.

The Wildcats, however, are just on a different level. That’s why they’ll win.

Wildcats, Zags make statement

December, 11, 2013

They called him Goldieblocks.

Well, at least some folks on social media created the impromptu and fitting nickname for Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein against Boise State. The 7-foot center debuted his newly dyed blonde hair cut in the shape of a “Bobby Brown” style from the '80s, blocking nine shots during the Wildcats’ 70-55 win.

Cauley-Stein, who tied his career high for blocks, led a defensive effort for the No. 11 Wildcats that was night-and-day better than their performance in Friday’s loss to Baylor.

The Broncos (8-1) ranked second in the NCAA in scoring with a 91.9 points per game average coming in. Prior to the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari said they ran the dribble-drive offense better than many of his teams in the past.

Boise State kept on attacking the lane, but Cauley-Stein’s versatility and quickness eliminated many advantages it gained from penetration. He could guard on switches from the perimeter on in, which is how he got to so many shots.

[+] EnlargeWillie Cauley-Stein
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIt wasn't just the early-1990s Bobby Brown hairdo that dazzled for Willie Cauley-Stein, who blocked nine shots in Kentucky's victory over Boise State.
It was a bit of a relief for the young Cats, who surely wanted to avoid a two-game losing streak with games against No. 18 North Carolina and No. 6 Louisville looming in two of their next three games.

As much as Calipari used the Baylor loss as motivation, he could use the Boise win as a building block. The Broncos returned all of their starters from last season and are poised to be an NCAA tournament team.

The Broncos played a de-facto zone defense the way they sagged so much in their man-to-man. That look caused the Wildcats major problems against Baylor, but UK guard James Young helped loosen up the lane with his perimeter shooting in the first half.

Young scored 14 of the Cats' first 28 points and finished with a game-high 21 points. More importantly for UK, he added nine rebounds.

Rebounding was just one of UK's shortcomings against Baylor that was corrected at home against the Broncos. Julius Randle, who scored 17 points, led the way with 11 boards as Kentucky held a plus-16 rebounding advantage. The Bears beat UK, who was without forward Marcus Lee due to a stomach illness, on the boards by 15.

Boise got its leading scorer Anthony Drmic back into the lineup after he missed last week’s game with an undisclosed illness. Drmic scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the first half, but was held to just 1-of-8 shooting after halftime.

Boise shot just 8-of-35 in the second half en route to its first loss of the season.

UK left with some positives defensively, but its ballhandling is still cause for concern. The Cats had 19 turnovers, which helped the Broncos outscore them 18-7 in points off turnovers.

UK also had just seven assists on its 27 made field goals, which suggests it’s still relying on individual talent to score.

Nevertheless, a win against an experienced team will bode well for the Wildcats, just like a win on the road will help springboard Gonzaga.

The No. 20 Bulldogs looked to be headed to a loss in Appalachia against West Virginia. Tuesday was the Bulldogs' only true road game during their nonconference schedule, and they faced every bit of adversity before pulling out an 80-76 win.

West Virginia, like Kentucky, lost both of its marquee games entering tonight and needed a win to build some confidence. Guard Eron Harris lit up the Zags with 18 points in the first half.

Unlike their losses to Wisconsin and Missouri, in which they fell behind big early, all was going well at home for the Mountaineers against Gonzaga as they ran out to a 10-point second-half lead. When the Bulldogs had a spurt, Terry Henderson seemed to suppress it when he converted a four-point play with 8:16 left.

That’s when the Zags, not known for being defensive stoppers, clamped down.

Harris couldn’t find the same open shots he had during his hot start. He made just 2-of-5 attempts in the second half, including one 3-pointer after nailing four in the first half.

The Mountaineers shot just 37 percent, which marked just the third game this season the Bulldogs held a team to less than 40 percent shooting. That allowed them to hold West Virginia without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch and regain the lead.

Kevin Pangos, who had 18 points, hit three straight 3-pointers during a 13-0 run that gave the Zags the lead for good at 74-66 with 2:18 left.

While Pangos finished the Mountaineers off from the outside, it was the inside play of center Przemek Karnowski that powered Gonzaga throughout the game. Karnowski played perhaps his best game of the season, recording a season-high 19 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds.

One night in, the kids are all right

November, 9, 2013

Before the whole thing devolved into a hilarious game of expectations limbo, Tom Izzo kind of had a point.

"[Kentucky coach John Calipari's] lucky," Izzo said last week. "Everybody says, 'Have you studied Kentucky?' What the hell are you going to study? I said, 'I've got to go back and look at high school film, and then they run different things than he's going to run, so he's got a big advantage.' You can tell him I said that. It'll probably make the news."

Surprise, surprise: It made the news. Calipari insisted that no, his team's perennial youth gave more experienced teams like Michigan State the early-season advantage; on Friday Izzo joked that Cal and his already-legendary recruiting class should just go ahead and forfeit.

With all this comedy gold flying about, it would be easy to lose sight of Izzo's original point. But it's valid, and can be applied to every highly touted freshman we've spent all offseason eagerly anticipating: Until each plays some real, recorded college basketball, we don't really know anything.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesWith 22 points and six rebounds Friday, it's safe to say that Jabari Parker's college debut went well.
Now they have, and now we do, and you know what? That high school tape might have been pretty valuable after all.

Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, the undisputed cross-cultural star of this thrilling 2013 class, made his much-anticipated debut in Lawrence, Kan., Friday night. He finished with 16 points on 5-of-9 from the field, 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and 4-of-6 from the free-throw line, with three rebounds, two assists, and three steals. In other words, he didn't disappoint -- provided you knew what to expect.

If you need Wiggins to score 35 points a game to "validate" his hype, you're on the wrong track. Instead, what every coach has said about Wiggins -- that his greatest asset, perhaps aside from his athleticism, is that there are no real weaknesses in any aspect of his game -- is precisely what he displayed Friday night. He flies around the court but also handles the ball well, has soft perimeter touch (and excellent mechanics), and is already one of the best on-ball defenders in the college game. Yes, OK, it was Louisiana-Monroe, but still: Wiggins' game is obscenely well-rounded, and he showed as much in his first game as a Jayhawk.

Kentucky freshman Julius Randle performed similarly in that he did the things every scout and recruiting guru said he was going to do when he arrived in Lexington this summer: He beasted dudes. Randle finished with 23 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 15 rebounds. That's a nice line for a 38-minute outing. Randle did in 26. And Calipari already has developed a devastating wrinkle for his best player. Rather than start Randle on the low block, he has him playing at the top of the key, where Randle can build a sufficient head of steam before flying unstoppably through the lane. Think of the sets Michael Kidd-Gilchrist saw in 2011-12, and then picture a 6-foot-9, 225-pound left-handed freight train in his place. You get the picture.

The rest of UK's freshmen were more of a mixed bag. James Young -- who has drawn as many, if not more, NBA raves this fall -- finished just 3-of-10 from the field. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison combined to go 4-of-11, though Aaron added four steals and five rebounds and Andrew five assists. But Marcus Lee's 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting speaks to the depth Calipari could unleash on the sport this season; Lee played exactly 15 minutes off the bench.

There were other noteworthy frosh in action: Florida's Kasey Hill helped lead a depleted Gators team past a frisky North Florida 77-69, and his 15-point/four-assist/two-steal night doesn't quite speak to the speed and command he displayed offensively, particularly on the break. Kansas' Joel Embiid attempted just two field goals but went 7-of-10 from the stripe, and Indiana's Noah Vonleh struggled from the field but pulled down 14 rebounds in 22 minutes against Chicago State. Indiana blocked 13 shots, six more than their 2013 season high.

And then there was Duke's Jabari Parker, whom our own C.L. Brown saw first-hand. Parker scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds, looked every bit as natural a scorer as he'd been sold as, and led Duke to a 111-points-in-68-possessions (yes, you read that right) win over Davidson. And let’s not overlook Aaron Gordon's 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in a win for Arizona.

All of which is ... kind of a relief! After all, we've spent the last six months telling you a number of things: That this was the best incoming group of freshmen in memory; that Kentucky's class was the greatest of all-time; that Wiggins and Parker were generational talents and future NBA All-Stars; that this was going to be an exciting, freewheeling, freshman-dominated season of college hoops. But there were no guarantees. Not when high school tape is the only point of reference. There never are.

Now, those days are officially over. The college data sets have received their first inputs. Izzo will be thankful; his tapes just got a little bit better. The rest of us can settle for "stoked."
Cauley-SteinAP Photo/Dave Martin
Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Kentucky Insider. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

Remember when Kentucky freaked everyone out?

It wasn't hard to figure out why. To the untrained eye, Kentucky's 2011-12 national title was the product of nothing more than John Calipari's immense recruiting advantage over everyone else in the sport. To many, the dominant triumph of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist proved that all Calipari had to do every year was get the best players, coax them into playing his typically stifling defense and let the talent do the rest. He had cracked the code. The sport would never be the same.

A year later, as the Wildcats ended their season in Moon, Pa., in the first round of the NIT, losing to a Northeast Conference team (Robert Morris) that has lost more games in its history than it has won, the noise diverged. Suddenly, Kentucky couldn't recruit; it had missed on Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin; only pre-ACL tear Nerlens Noel panned out as planned. Or: Maybe you can't win a national title relying on talented freshmen after all! Maybe 2012 was just luck! Ha!

All of this stuff misses the point.

Kentucky 2011-12 wasn't the best team in the country because it comprised only talented freshmen. The freshmen UK did have were special, but just as important were Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. None was a freshmen. Jones would have been a lottery pick had he left during the lockout uncertainty. Miller was a fourth-year senior who came off the bench.

The 2012-13 team didn't have any of these things. The freshmen, particularly Poythress and Goodwin, disappointed. But save the inconsistent Kyle Wiltjer, there were no veterans, let alone veteran leaders, to provide any semblance of core consistency, confidence or backbone. When Noel tore his ACL at Florida and UK lost 88-58 at Tennessee, you could just see it. There was nothing there, particularly on the defensive end, where a team's cohesion and heart shine brightest. And the Wildcats were hardly impenetrable with Noel in the lineup, either.

The lesson in all this exists on neither extreme of the rhetorical continuum. Calipari didn't lose his touch or totally whiff on recruits last season any more than his 2011-12 team changed college basketball forever.

The lesson here is something more fundamental about the game itself, and it's true whether you're playing in your pickup game or in the NBA: Talent isn't everything. Championships don't just happen. Personalities matter. Intelligence matters. Defense matters. Veterans matter.

That's why, even as Calipari prepares to bring the best recruiting class in college hoops history into the fold, Kentucky can't merely hope to glide by on glimmering talent. If UK is going to upend the reigning national champs at Louisville and avoid challenges from every corner, the Wildcats will need the scattered returners to step up, too.

None will be more important than Willie Cauley-Stein.

With Goodwin and Noel off to the NBA and Ryan Harrow having transferred to Georgia State, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer were the only three candidates for this prestigious position. I was actually torn about this Tuesday night, so I ran an informal poll among Kentucky fans on Twitter. Dozens of replies later, the consensus was overwhelmingly in favor of Cauley-Stein. Some made the case for Poythress, particularly in light of Andrew Wiggins' decision to play at Kansas (thus preserving Poythress plenty of minutes and possibly a starting spot). Few made the case for Wiltjer, even though I would contend his length and shooting -- he finished at 36.7 percent from 3 last season, which isn't bad for a 6-foot-10 guy -- could still be crucial in 2013-14.

But Cauley-Stein's case really is the most convincing. You won't find many 7-footers as athletic as Cauley-Stein at any level, full stop, and the big man already demonstrated solid rebounding on both ends of the floor and competent finishing ability around the rim. He ended the season having shot 62.1 percent from the field, which is great pretty much any way you slice it. Despite that output, though, Cauley-Stein couldn't be relied on to score over a competent defender. According to Synergy scouting data, Cauley-Stein scored 1.55 points per possession when he cut to the rim and 1.05 on offensive rebound putbacks but just .067 points per trip the 75 times he was put in a legitimate post-up opportunity.

This is rawness personified. A little more touch and one or two reliable moves, and there's no reason an athletic 7-footer can't score over even the best collegiate post defenders.

[+] EnlargeWillie Cauley-Stein
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWith Cauley-Stein defending the rim, Kentucky's talented offensive players can get to work.
But that would be a bonus. After all, Kentucky shouldn't have much trouble scoring the basketball next season. The Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) will be deadly on the perimeter, and power forward Julius Randle -- the No. 3-ranked player in the class, behind only Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker -- will be the go-to post force. Also, Kentucky has the No. 2 center in the class, Dakari Johnson, whose chief strength is his offensive polish.

No, what Kentucky needs -- what has made Calipari such a consistently successful coach in the past decade -- is defense. Last season's Wildcats finished ranked No. 77 in's adjusted efficiency rankings. That was the first time since the 2004-05 Memphis Tigers that a Calipari-coached defense wasn't among the 15 stingiest in the country. In five of those years, it ranked in the top 10. This is Calipari's formula: His offenses are usually excellent, but sometimes they're merely good. What sets his teams apart is his ability to meld young players into a lockdown defensive group.

Cauley-Stein will be massive in this effort. He blocked a shot on 8.4 percent of his available possessions last season, which is a totally respectable rate on its own and especially impressive given that he was playing on the same team as human block-sponge Noel. Johnson is not known as an elite athlete or defender, beyond his ability to clog the lane. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has a chance to be a dominant defensive presence. He could be the prohibitive force that makes interior penetration against Kentucky impossible, the player who lets the rest of the team's talent press out on shooters, unafraid of either (A) inefficient midrange shots or (B) deep drives. Cauley-Stein can be on that wall. He should be on that wall.

The great luxury of Calipari's signing five of the best nine players in recent history's most loaded incoming class is that none of his three returners will be seen as the team's most important player. That title likely will go to either Aaron or Andrew Harrison, or Randle. Neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein is guaranteed a starting spot; Wiltjer, veteran of a national title team, is practically guaranteed to come off the bench. And we haven't even talked about James Young (a 6-foot-6 lefty scorer ranked eighth overall in the class) or Marcus Lee (the best oh-yeah-they-have-that-guy in recruiting history).

Conceivably, UK could start five freshmen -- the Harrisons, Young, Randle and Johnson -- and still be a legitimate national title threat, if not the favorite. But it is hard to imagine Kentucky approaching its incredibly lofty ceiling if Cauley-Stein isn't contributing in big ways to that effort. The Wildcats need his size, his shot-blocking, his rebounding. They need the size and strength borne of a full offseason spent in an elite training and conditioning program.

They also need his anger. Few players were more vocal about the frustration of last season, how embarrassing getting walked off in Moon, Pa., really was.

"I feel like something’s empty, and I want to fill it," Cauley-Stein told the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker in April. Kentucky needs Cauley-Stein to be that guy -- the guy who has been through it before, who knows it isn't easy, that no matter how bad it gets in practice, he has seen worse. On every rotation and every box-out, Kentucky needs someone who feels an emptiness that can be filled only by winning.

In short, Kentucky needs a veteran. Poythress or Wiltjer might be that guy. Maybe all three are. Maybe there's an MKG in the freshman mix. Someone must embrace the role, tangible or otherwise. Kentucky will be very good the minute it begins the season. Whether it will be great is another matter entirely, one up to Cauley-Stein and, to a lesser extent, Poythress and Wiltjer.

Because that is the real lesson of the past two seasons of Kentucky basketball. Talent is great, but greatness is about so much more than talent. Sometimes we need a reminder, you know?