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Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas (photo courtesy ESPN.com)

Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas (photo courtesy ESPN.com)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Florida has figured things out this year that Kentucky has not. That’s why the Gators are 17-0 in SEC play, ranked No. 1 and a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney going into Saturday’s game with UK.

“With this team coming into the year, there were some question marks. He (Florida coach Billy Donovan) has guys that have been really good leaders and not just accepted roles, but really embraced them,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Patric Young has been not good, but a great leader our there.

“Just the body language they exhibit on the floor and as trivial as that may sound, they are a really good group. Of the teams I have watched this year, they are the most fun to watch. They are all willing participants in this and that has been fun to watch.”

Florida has a veteran, senior-dominated team that Bilas has enjoyed watching.

“You got to watch this group grow up together instead of being together a year and then the big shots going pro. Billy has been challenged by some of these players as they have grown up, but the reward has been nice to see. They have all responded in a really positive way,” Bilas said.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla says the Gators “epitomize” what a team should be.

“They play and act and look like a team. When you look at this team, I am not sure there is anybody I would say is a lock to be in the NBA 10 years. But every guy understands his role. They are unselfish, coachable, having shooting, have size. In terms of having a great team, this is the blueprint,” Fraschilla said.

Fraschilla noted that Donovan  might prefer to have five All-Americans to coach, but then said “you have to be careful what you wish for” after noting earlier that he felt “badly” for what Calipari was going through this season because of his recruiting approach.

“In Billy’s case, players come in understanding what is expected of them and most times you figure it out and the pieces all fit and then you have a chance to be an extraordinary team,” Fraschilla said.

By LARRY VAUGHT

ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla says he feels “badly” for Kentucky coach John Calipari because of the way this season has gone for the Wildcats.

“I feel badly for John in this regard — he is not having any fun coaching these guys and I am not saying it is the players’ fault. He has gone in with his eyes wide open recruiting one and done players. The last two teams I have been watching bear no resemblance to the teams he coached at UMass and Memphis,” said Fraschilla Wednesday on an ESPN conference call.

“Again, a lot of that is on him and some on the players. It looks like a team not having fun. I don’t think he is coaching them as hard as other teams he’s had in practice and holding them accountable. I do feel badly, but he knew what he was getting into with this type of recruiting style.”

Fraschilla, a former college coach and long-time Calipari friend, said the Cats were “just not fun to watch” this year.

“Having watched them practice and seeing them earlier in the year and where they are right now, this team beating (No. 1) Florida Saturday would be like Boston College beating Syracuse,” the ESPN analyst said. “It may happen, but I would not hold my breath.

“I don’t know how much better (the Cats) can get chemistry-wise going into the (NCAA) Tournament. They’re still enormously talented. If given the right draw, they could go far in the tournament. If I was a gambler, I wouldn’t be betting on them.”

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/03/05/3123371/espn-analysts-see-gloomy-ending.html#storylink=cpy
Bobby Knight photo courtesy espn.com

Bobby Knight photo courtesy espn.com

By LARRY VAUGHT

It was about five years ago that former Indiana coach Bobby Knight infuriated Kentucky basketball fans with the shots he took at coach John Calipari at the UK program.

“We’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he’s still coaching. I really don’t understand that,” Knight said while speaking at a ceremony for the Indiana Basketball Hall Of Fame in 2009.

Obviously, the comments, and some others he made about UK and Calipari, went national and created quite a controversy among the pro-Calipari and anti-Calipari factions.

Now Knight is coming back to Rupp Arena for Thursday’s UK-Arkansas game. He will be working the game for ESPN along with Rece Davis, who does play by play. This will be Knight’s first time in Rupp since he blasted Calipari.

Remember he also said that UK’s 2009-2010 team that included Patrick Patterson, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe  and DeMarcus Cousins lacked academic integrity.

“Kentucky the year before last started five players in the NCAA tournament games that had not been to class that semester,” Knight said. “That’s that one-and-done philosophy.”

Both Patterson and Cousins went on Twitter at the time to correct Knight and UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart also defended the basketball program. Eventually Knight had to admit he was wrong.

“My overall point is that ‘one and dones’ are not healthy for college basketball. I should not have made it personal to Kentucky and its players and I apologize,” Knight said then.

A couple of years ago in an interview with WLEX-TV in Lexington, Knight was asked about his thoughts on Calipari. He had changed his tune — or at least he did in that interview.

“I think one of the things that John does that is really important is he coaches hard. He coaches to make kids play hard. He coaches to make kids give him everything they’ve got at both ends of the floor and that’s why his teams, among other reasons, have been difficult to play against,” Knight said.

Now he’ll be asked to offer an impartial analysis of Kentucky’s play and Calipari’s coaching from his front row seat in Rupp Arena Thursday night.

What kind of reception do you think he’ll get — and what kind of reception should he get?

espn calipari screenshot

ESPN-CollegeGameDay-BasketballBy LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky coach John Calipari keeps citing his team’s youth as a reason for inconsistent play and waiting for the time when his players grasp what he wants consistently at both ends of the court.

While UK fans might not want to hear that, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas says “most teams are singing the same song” about wanting better play.

“With young guys, it is constant about getting on them over not communicating,” said Bilas, who will be in Lexington Saturday for the UK-Florida game as part of ESPN GameDay. “Kentucky has its youngest team ever and some guys pick things up quicker than others. Everybody is on a different learning curve and it changes every year. Some kids pick things up quicker as toddlers than others. But so what. They are all walking at age 4, they just started at different times.”

Kentucky is 19-5 and ranked No. 14 going into Saturday night’s game and Bilas sees the Cats getting better.

“They are not a great team yet, but they have kept plugging along,” he said. “Composure and poise will be important in this game. They have to play through mistakes. Will they assess the situation correctly and communicate? Can they communicate how to guard the ball screen? Can they communicate where to go when they come down the court and see if Florida is in zone or man-to-man? It sounds like little things, but they will be big in this game.

“Florida is really good, really deep. They are old and experienced together. They have a lot of guys that can guard more than one position. They are good enough to switch defenses and keep you off balance. They are very good at disrupting your rhythm and establishing their rhythm. Their defense can go from a 1-3-1 zone to a press to speed you up or slow you down. They throw in man and the more zone. It’s hard for young teams to figure out how to attack all that because they don’t give you a steady diet of any one thing.

“This is not the type of Billy Donovan team people think of where they press and just run up and down the floor. They play slower. They are not a high volume running team. They set a ton of ball screens and that’s hard for young guys to guard. They are great at putting you in bad positions.”

While playing in Rupp Arena is normally a huge advantage for UK, Bilas says the Gators won’t be rattled or intimidated.

“Florida is not going to be sped up. They are not going to be intimidated by the crowd. They have been to Rupp and been through everything before,” Bilas said. “That does not mean they could not get beat or that Kentucky can’t win, but you cannot rely on them to make mistakes for you to win. You have got to play your best to beat them because they are not just going to lose the game.”

Bilas isn’t sure who Saturday’s game might be bigger for since each team could benefit from a win.

“This is a game to win the league, but you also want to win the NCAA Tournament,” Bilas said. “To me, every game is important and you treat it that way. I think this game is important to both of them because there are not that many marquee games in the SEC. This is one everybody will be watching. It is against a Final Four caliber opponent and will tell you a lot about both teams.”

Bilas thought in the summer that UK could be a national title contender. Despite the team’s five losses, he has not backed off that belief.

“I still feel that way. The tournament is not for another month. This team is going to grow over the next few weeks as long as they don’t have injuries to worry about,” Bilas said. “They just need to be a more together team, but most teams still need that. Some of the X and O things, they will fix. That is not a big deal.

“But the issue of connectivity for a young team is important. Their talking, concentration … they are still learning. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard workers, but they have to learn the consistency of effort every day in practice. That can just take time at this level.”

Bilas says freshman Julius Randle remains UK’s most impressive player by a wide margin.

“He is the best player, but also the most consistent and most productive,” Bilas said. “I know John thinks he can do more and he can, but what he is doing is amazing already. He’s really an impressive player.

“I don’t know what was expected from this young team. John has kind of ruined expectations for freshmen because he has done so well with so many. I didn’t think what he has done would be possible to take so many young players and mold them so quickly like he did in 2010 and 2012. It’s been impressive and that’s why it is still way too early to write this team out of the national title picture no matter what happens Saturday.”

Florida forward Casey Prather (24)charges for the basket as Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) fails to stop the move during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Prather scored 12 points to help Florida defeat Tennessee 67-41. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Florida forward Casey Prather (24)charges for the basket as Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) fails to stop the move during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Prather scored 12 points to help Florida defeat Tennessee 67-41. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Dick Vitale will be in Rupp Arena Saturday for the ESPN GameDay battle between No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky. While he knows how successful Kentucky has been under coach John Calipari in Rupp Arena, he warns that beating Florida anywhere is no easy task.

“They have so much winning experience from the last three years,” said Vitale. “Three consecutive Elite Eights. That’s impressive and gives a team so much experience and confidence. They could definitely win the national championship. On a given night, they can be really, really special. They have size inside, play great defense and have guys that can hit the 3. And they know how to always play together.”

Vitale thinks Casey Prather’s improvement is a big reason the Gators are unbeaten in SEC play and have five league road wins.

“Prather is a good ballhandler and has gotten a lot more comfortable on the perimeter,” Vitale said. “He can be magical with the ball in transition. And he’s a good defensive player as well. He fits perfectly in their system.”

 

University of Kentucky football alumni and Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb joined Michelle Marie in ESPN’s GUINNESS SUITE to play a game of fill in the blank revealing some fun facts about him and his Green Bay Packers teammates.

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.

By LARRY VAUGHT

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.”

Louisville's Russ Smith, right, runs into the screen of Missouri Stste's Christian Kirk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Louisville’s Russ Smith, right, runs into the screen of Missouri State’s Christian Kirk  Dec. 17, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

By LARRY VAUGHT

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas understands the hype for Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game and the passion both fan bases have for this rivalry. The ESPN analyst also knows many variables factor into who can win the game. However, Bilas doesn’t think it’s hard to project which player could be the key to his team winning.

“Julius Randle and Russ Smith. I don’t think Kentucky will win unless Randle is engaged and fully involved in the offense. Kentucky cannot just put its head down and drive Louisville. Randle has got to get the ball, and he has to want the ball in the right spots and play before he gets the ball,” Bilas said. “Smith is capable of taking over the game and getting 35. He is an incredible college player.”

Randle is averaging 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds (tied for third nationally) per game for Kentucky and shooting 54.4 percent from the field. However, he has a team-high 40 turnovers in 12 games. Smith is averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. He has 29 turnovers. Smith has shown the ability to score at the rim or from 3-point range, but he’s also had seven games with five or more assists after having only eight all of last season.

Kentucky's Julius Randle (30) shoots between Belmont's Reece Evan Bradds (35) and J.J. Mann (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 93-80. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky’s Julius Randle (30) shoots between Belmont’s Reece Evan Bradds (35) and J.J. Mann (24)  Dec. 21, in Lexington. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

It could help Randle if Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the nation’s top shot blockers, can counter Louisville’s physical play with a solid overall performance. He’s averaging 4.17 blocks per game, fifth best in the nation, along with 9.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.

“His mobility and agility are impressive. He has been terrific in blocking and changing shots,” Bilas said. “But he can be better in other aspects of the game. Once he accepts and embraces the physical challenge of bigger teams, he will be very good. Right now, physical play bothers him a bit.”

Two years ago UK beat Louisville in Rupp Arena and then met the Cards again in the Final Four semifinals. Could one or both of these teams be Final Four-bound again?

“The odds say no. But I still believe that both are among the four most talented teams. If the tournament started today, I’d say no, but Louisville would have the better chance. Thankfully, the tournament doesn’t start today,” Bilas said.

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