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ESPN analyst Dick Vitale: Kentucky “tough team to beat” if Harrisons play well

Larry Vaught and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale posed for this picture at last year's NCAA tournament.

Larry Vaught and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale posed for this picture at last year’s NCAA tournament.


If Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison play well, veteran ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale says Kentucky is a “tough team to beat” and as good as any team in the country.

He believes the improved “pyche” the Cats got from beating Louisville Dec. 28 helps and the recent break from games to practice let UK “get back to the gym and work with more positives” going into Southeastern Conference play.

“It starts with perimeter play. Your inside can only take you so far,” Vitale said.

He says the Harrisons need to reduce turnovers, get better shots for teammates and become the key to initiating defensive pressure on the ball.

“Michigan State’s guards are as good any guards in the country. That’s how you win,” Vitale said. “Great guard play the key for Kentucky. Their guard play has to be consistent and do it on a regular basis to be a really good team.”

Vitale says Kentucky’s recruiting class came in with a “lot of ability, lot of fan fare.” He admits many, including him, thought it could be the best recruiting class since 1979.

“But you still have got to play together as a unit, not individuals,” Vitale said. “Wisconsin is so good because they are so unified offensively and defensively. They know how to do the little things — spread the floor, get away from traps, how to use the diagonal pass.

“They are searching for that (at Kentucky). They (the Harrisons) are playing based on skill and ability. They have not been able to develop, but they have things you cannot teach. They can handle, shoot. They have got size, toughness and a little swag. They will be fine. It has just taken a little longer than people expected.”

Vitale says Andrew Harrison, the point guard, needs to improve defensively, understand what is a good shot and how to take advantage of other people on the floor. He noted how seldom UK got the ball inside to Julius Randle in its loss at North Carolina in December.

“They are not selfish. They are good kids. It’s just understanding,” Vitale said. “Point guard, and guard play, is essential on any level. If you are not strong on the perimeter, you are going to struggle against quality teams. They (Kentucky) will overpower a lot of teams that cannot match their size and athleticism.”

Vitale then rattled off a list of teams that included Michigan State, Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona and Syracuse where Kentucky, or any team, would have to “execute well, protect the basketball and get good shots” to win.

Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are “veteran players with great size” that Vitale says could impact the way UK finishes the season, too.

“They are a factor. I think personally, Willie has got to be much more aggressive offensively. There’s no doubt his shot blocking is an incredible plus. If you are playing Kentucky, you better shoot over the top and make 3’s because inside he is going to reject big-time numbers,” Vitale said. “I think he has to be a little bit more of a force in the low post with his size and ability.

“Poythress was big against Louisville. He was aggressive, active and wanted to rebound. He gives them toughness and experience that they need.”

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  1. King Ghidora

    The team is coming around although they didn’t look like it the first half except for Young. When MSU triple teamed Randle it rattled the Cats. They are getting used to seeing him dominate inside so much that they have come to count on it to the exclusion of creating their own shots at least at times. Young is breaking out of the form and it’s a very good thing for the team. If they expect to go deep in the tournament they will need a consistent outside shooter or two. But they are certainly improving especially on defense where it really counts. Yes they failed to get back on defense too many times in the first half but in the second half that changed. They have trouble with really quick guards unless they really step up and challenge them. If they can do that consistently they will be a real threat to anyone.

    1. Larry T Clemons

      King, I expected The Harrison’s to be a bigger threat from the outside…just saying….

      1. King Ghidora

        So did I. And I still expect them to be eventually. They have had that deer in the headlights look the entire season IMO. So has Young. He’s getting past it. I think they will too. I really hope they will. They are still freshmen and very young. Remember how long it took Darius to get his game going? He was a senior before it really clicked for him. It takes more time with some. Not many come in with the skills of Wall, Cousins, Davis and Knight. Those guys were exceptional and I think they spoiled us. I’m not giving up on the twins though. I think they have it in them. Their defense has picked up a lot and that usually helps get your offensive game going too.

  2. TheProfessor

    This team is not a good perimeter shooting team, not a good free throw shooting team, commits too many turnovers, and forces too few turnovers.

    Vitale’s statement is akin to saying, Team X is tough to beat when they shoot the ball 50% from the arc. Duh! UK is tough to beat when the Harrison twins are playing well. And when they are not, UK is reduced to a team that can and has been beaten by teams like UNC that has lost 5 so far, lost 2 at home against #64 Texas and #74 Miami of Florida.

    With respect to 3 pt shooting, Poythress has the highest percentage on the team with more than 1 attempt. 36.4%, 4 for 11. Last year, Alex shot well from the perimeter. However, Young has taken 96 of them, Aaron 58, and Andrew 31. Why aren’t these guys deferring to Alex more on the perimeter? Calipari can dismiss the importance of free throws in more ways than I thought was possible, and coming from a coach, I find his public stance nothing short of bizarre. Free throws provide the potential of the most efficient use of any possession if a team makes 70% or more. At 70%, that is 1.4 points for every possession that ends with a trip to the line. To match that productivity from the 3 point line, a team would have to average about 47% from outside the arc. This team is shooting the 3 pointer at about 30%, or 0.9 points per possession ending with a 3 point attempt. From inside the arc, a team must match the free throw percentage to equal the productivity, yet this team inside the arc is averaging about 55%, or 1.1 points per possession ended with a shot inside the arc.

    Yet, Calipari puts down any suggestion that this team, any team, should be prepared to shoot well from the line. I just do not get that at all. I would think that after his team’s meltdown in the championship game against Kansas in 2008, that he would be one of the hard nosed coaches about his players and free throw shooting.

    The turnovers represent possessions with 0 chance of scoring, 0.00 points per possession by definition. This one of very few UK teams over the years that commits more turnovers than it forces. Why is that? How can that be with all of this talent?

    I am still waiting to see signs that this team is getting it. I believe Alex has gotten it. I believe that Young is close to getting it. I don’t see it in either twin, and I don’t see it in Randle (I know it is heresy to say that). I don’t see it with Hawkins. I see great potential with Lee and Johnson, but they hardly get into games. Polson, bless his Jessamine County heart, can run the team at the point better than Andrew, but gets essentially no minutes, I suppose to allow Andrew to “grow into” that role.

    But, I thought no one would be given anything. I thought you earn your playing time. Not if you are a “hotshot” freshman and the competition is a senior whose main attribute is he plays hard and makes few mistakes.

    Sorry folks to vent like this, but I am clearly feeling very frustrated by what I have seen thus far, and especially what I saw last night in the first half.

    1. Larry T Clemons

      No need to be sorry…You are accurate.

    2. King Ghidora

      The word was that Cal had his players shooting a ton of free throws over the break. Sometimes it just gets to be a mental thing. Maybe Cal is trying to take the pressure off so they will shoot better from the foul line. He plays head games for sure. I think their defense has improved a good bit in recent games and I think their inside game is as good as anyone’s. But I don’t think it’s possible to win without a great outside shooting game and so far they don’t have one. I think the turnovers and playing defense is what Vitale was talking about. But you’re right. It’s like saying if I could run a little faster I could win the Olympic 100 meter race. It might work well if it does happen but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

    3. Bryan M.

      I agree completely. I hope that Coach Cal says to the media free throws don’t matter but something different to the players. Maybe he is trying to deflect attention, I don’t know. I do believe that if we were shooting 75 to 80 percent from the free throw line as a team we would be darn near unbeatable.

  3. TheProfessor

    The defensive efficiencies of the 5 Calipari teams are:

    0.953 2014
    0.956 2013
    0.914 2012
    0.952 2011
    0.917 2010

    The 2012 and 2010 teams played defense as it should be done, but 2011, 2013, and this team simply have not gotten it done on the defensive end is a manner that is necessary to compete for championship.

    At the offensive end, the picture is a little different.

    1.158 2014
    1.070 2013
    1.159 2012
    1.125 2011
    1.115 2010

    This team’s offense, even with the poor outside shooting has an offensive efficiency that is on par with the 2012 group. The 2013 team’s offense was the worst of the Calipari Era, and when the worst offense is coupled with the worst defense, you get NIT.

  4. Phillip Barker

    We better find another shooter or I don’t see us going too far in the tournament. I don’t know what goes on in practice with Willis, but at least he is not afraid to shoot. Some players are better game players than practice players and he might just be one of those type.

  5. TheProfessor

    What amazes me is a 5* basketball player who does not shoot free throws at a 75% or better rate, a 5* player who is a guard but has a marginal shot from 15 to 22 feet.

    Maybe I just don’t understand the game of basketball.

    1. Bryan M.

      Seems to me that fundamentals count for less every year when ranking players. Unfortunately, they remain highly important in actual games.

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