The Shorthanded Kentucky Wildcats will bring their massive following to Athens for an Opening Night Clash.
Composure is going to be the word that defines this game. When Georgia faces Kentucky in Basketball, Georgia is never expected to win, it is a defeatism that seeps into the culture of University of Georgia Athletics. It plays out in the historical rhetoric and actions of lettermen, administrators, and former coaches. It does not matter where the games are played or how well Georgia may be playing in a given game, once the “GO BIG BLUE” chant starts that is Georgia’s cue to fold and take their “rightful place.” This is the way it has always been and it is a cultural and professional failing passed down by each generation. However, cultures are meant to be upended and triggering points are meant to overturn eras of failure. History, not just in sports, teaches us these events happen. The Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the Fall of the Soviet Union are examples of flashpoints in human civilization that change everything. Tom Crean’s 27 minute long manifesto on March 16, 2018 was the heralding of such change as Mark Fox and the oligopolists’ reign of incompetence and corruption was over. This is a chance to buck history and forge a new path for Georgia Basketball.
We Revolted for this Opportunity
The risks taken to speak out against a corrupted University of Georgia Athletic Association and the realization that the leadership was handcuffed by corrupt special interests were great. It was an uphill battle to point the mirror and expose the problems that existed in Athens, but minds were eventually changed. They came after us to defend the status quo. We still persisted even though it was to great resistance, but the case had to be made. Hearts and minds had to be changed to see what was there in front of us, we could not resort to the same arguments of deflection as to why UGA Athletics was struggling across the board despite record revenues and building projects. We exposed the real problems of corruption, incompetence, and cowardice that plagued Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
The voices of UGA Alumni were loud, but so was the influence lost by key oligopolists in the State of Georgia due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that went into place in 2018. It was no coincidence that the new law of the land that disincentivizes major boosters from having undue influence (ownership status) on college athletics programs brought Mark Fox’s reign to an end. UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity was finally able to do his job as an executive and make a human resource change without worrying about activist boosters.
Stylistically, Tom Crean has largely made good on his March 16 manifesto. However, more has to be done. For a manifesto without results is just words. The blue invaders come early, linger around, and stare for a bit too long like the way a sexual predator would at a neighborhood park. A win over Kentucky that quiets the blue invaders and sends them back home disappointed as Bulldog Nation “crab dances” on their exit is a next step on the path.
Bulldog Nation should want the March 16, 2018 manifesto to be UGA Athletics’ Speech at Brandenburg Gate or Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort. It is supposed to be a flashpoint that changes the culture. Hotel prices in Athens should surge on the date of every Home Basketball Game, UGA Alumni are supposed to be packing road courts and neutral site venues, and our support for each other in every venture should be unflagging. We have our differences in Bulldog Nation, we do not operate in lockstep and we certainly do not consider our fellow alumni to be family. However, what unites us is a commitment to winning and unlike everything else that defines our incredibly idiosyncratic culture – we’re all in this one together.
The objective is very clear… we want a result that leads to a fun, meme-able Tom Crean statue on the University of Georgia campus. Beating Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum and overcoming past bugaboos is the next step. Georgia Basketball took a historic step forward winning at Memphis, but revolutions are never supposed to end and beating Kentucky keeps the confrontation of history going.
The Exasperated John Calipari and the Shorthanded Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari did this to himself. He has no one else to blame for his frustration or what he unfortunately puts his kids through due to the scrutiny of being the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s highest profile individual and highest paid public employee. Calipari went from upbeat and demanding to increasingly exasperated over the course of a decade. His self-deprecation through the course of it all is probably the most therapeutic course of action he has taken in a role that eats coaches alive. In the United States, Calipari is one of the most scrutinized people. Possibly, the most scrutinized non-political figure in the country.
TFW you spend $65 trying to win a teddy bear at an arcade pic.twitter.com/PfF1TMIJEh
— Megan Calipari (@MeganCalipari) December 26, 2017
— Megan Calipari (@MeganCalipari) December 29, 2019
Calipari is a strangely sympathetic personality who popularized the “one-and-done”, built unsustainable expectations for an unreasonable base (still more stable than Alabama), experienced success, won a National Championship, and has seen it all blow up in his face. Sort of like his experiences with the claw machine, but claw machines tips and tricks are off-topic.
Calipari’s team may be 7 or 8 deep, which would not be conducive to pressing or a fast-paced game. Calipari’s style of play features full court presses (mostly run-and-jump) and pressure man-to-man defense. Offensively, the team is not as Dribble Drive Motion Offense heavy as in the past.
Kentucky is not a team that will shoot a lot of three point shots and they are not good at making them either. The common way to defend Kentucky is to play zone, but the problem is that most teams do not practice zone defense (1-3-1, 1-2-2 Matchup, 3-2, 4-1, or the common 2-3) enough to be effective. Kentucky still finds ways to get the basket and cover up their shooting weaknesses. They also are able to get to the Free Throw Line frequently and make their Free Throws. What skews their ability to take and make a lot of Free Throws at this point is their schedule.
Georgia has won more road games than Kentucky, it is actually unfair to print this because Kentucky actually has not played a single road game until tonight. This is going to be Kentucky’s first road test and it will be in front of a hostile Stegeman Coliseum crowd.
Officials have been swallowing whistles in December and January for many teams. Kentucky will likely not be able to benefit on the road like the way they would at Rupp Arena. An active crowd will influence the officiating.
Defensively, Kentucky has the unusual distinction of being a team that allows a better effective Field Goal rate against shots in non-transition opportunities (45.4%) than transition opportunities (40.5%). Kentucky is not particularly pace sensitive, but their depth with Ashton Hagans possibly out with an ankle injury may force them to play slower. In all likelihood, Hagans is going to play and Georgia has to be prepared for it. However, Hagans is not the most important player on this Kentucky team.
Georgia runs more than any opponent Kentucky has faced thus far and that includes Michigan State. Michigan State is not as efficient as Georgia in transition either. Kentucky’s missed shots will become secondary break opportunities very quickly. Kentucky is a good defensive rebounding team (74.6%) and this will be countered by Georgia’s ability to get second chance opportunities (33.6% offensive rebounding rate) themselves.
Kentucky takes a lot of mid-range shots (337th in shot distribution in this suboptimal zone) and they are 155th in Field Goal percentage from the mid-range. However, their ability to score in the restricted arc puts them at 5th in the country just above Georgia, who happened to face the best team in the country in defensive Field Goal percentage in the restricted arc (Memphis). Kentucky is not as intimidating in the restricted arc as Memphis, they allow a 60.1% Field Goal rate in the restricted arc, which is 199th in the country. They may have size, but if an opponent can get into the restricted arc to take a shot, they are going to find success.
Kentucky’s Players to Watch
Quickley is the most important player on this team. He is the only long-range shooting threat on this team, he is an automatic two points if he gets to the Free Throw Line, and his play gets the team going. He’s the momentum player on the team.
Quickley must be accounted for as leaving him open is a massive mistake. He will get his shot opportunities from ball reversal and kick-outs. He is dangerous shooting on the wings, particularly the right wing.
Tyrese Maxey’s usage rate is going to be a metric to watch in this game. Maxey has struggled with his three point shooting, but he is able to score just about anywhere. For a guard, he is a good defensive rebounder.
If Maxey is more involved, it is an indication that Kentucky is in a very competitive game. Calipari turns to Maxey the most to carry the burden, but he is just not efficient enough to deliver.
The splits are indicative that Maxey is a bit of an X-Factor to Kentucky’s success. However, one can say that Louisville handed Kentucky a win on a silver platter in their overtime meltdown in Lexington.
Georgia would probably prefer Maxey to go into Hero Ball mode against them rather than to deal with a more opportunistic and calculated Quickley.
As the Floor General of the Kentucky Wildcats, Hagans is a steady force for the team. Hagans is a terrible shooter and a strong finisher for a 6’3″ Point Guard. Hagans is a threat to dribble drive, but his biggest strength is his ability to distribute. The challenge with Hagans, if he is healthy enough to play, is to actually play to Hagans’ weaknesses on the offensive end as it is counterintuitive. Hagans’ issues with turnovers and shooting should be something that opponents try to exploit. Sagging off Hagans to deny the dribble drive or a feed into Nick Richards would be a wise approach. Save the tight denial defense for Immanuel Quickley.
The wise decision for Tom Crean when approaching Hagans would involve Anthony Edwards not defending him, but rather having Toumani Camara sagging off on him in man-to-man. Putting Edwards on Quickley to discourage Quickley from having perimeter shot opportunities is the smart way to go. Wheeler and Gresham would be best to defend Maxey.
Hagans is a defensive pest. He challenges passing lanes, picks pockets of dribblers in front of him within the pressure man-to-man defense, and strips the ball from opponents as a secondary defender. Forcing him to fight off screens and seeing if Calipari wishes to switch or if he is going to keep Nick Richards down in the restricted arc would be the right approach.
The defensive pressure is on him and facing him is a lot like facing James Banks of Georgia Tech. He is a back-to-the-basket post who blocks a lot of shots. Richards’ weakness is foul trouble. Getting him into foul trouble would be a priority. The problem is that Georgia has not been forcing opponents into foul trouble lately. Officials have not been calling fouls in Georgia games. Forcing Richards to make a mistake should be a priority. He is incredibly efficient inside the restricted arc as a scorer and removing him from the defense would create easier cuts and set up the dribble drive options well.
Richards’ biggest threat to Georgia is actually his ability to corral offensive rebounds and get second chance points, which plays into a major weakness of the Bulldogs. Consider that Georgia allows so few second chance points on a poor defensive rebounding rate, the Dawgs have been playing with fire here. If Georgia can knock Richards out of the game, the dynamics change significantly.
In his last five games, Richards has had 4 fouls or more. Richards is the second most important player for this Kentucky team. If he does not get shots in the restricted arc and he cannot make an impact on the game defensively, Kentucky is usually in a dog fight and they typically lose these games.
Nate Sestina is a Combo Forward who is a graduate transfer out of Bucknell. Sestina is able to shoot the three point shot well, but this season has been streaky and has been at times, neglectful of the three point arc. Sestina is a challenge on the glass and along with Nick Richards has to be denied on the offensive glass. Sestina is not heavily emphasized in the Kentucky Offense, but he is very efficient. The challenge for Tom Crean is to decide whether Rayshaun Hammonds draws the assignment of Sestina or if he chooses to go with a committee approach.
Putting Hammonds on Sestina would mean that a player like Rodney Howard or Mike Peake can defend Nick Richards and possibly have a shading Toumani Camara to deny a passing lane inside. The objective is to dare Kentucky to dribble drive, take mid-range shots, and play Hero Ball.
Kentucky scores 58.2% of their points off assists. Taking away options like Sestina would take them out of their element. Georgia opponents score 45% of their points off assists, which is 51st in the country in denying ball movement.
What to Expect
A raucous environment. Kentucky wants this game to play out like last season’s game where they sucked the air out of Stegeman Coliseum in a romp. However, this time around, the roster is very different for Georgia and Kentucky is depleted. Tom Crean should press and force this Kentucky team to wear down. Alternating between man-to-man and the 1-2-2 Matchup Zone or 2-3 Zone would tempt Kentucky to play to their weaknesses. The objective should be to turn Kentucky into a shooting team and close them out. Georgia will likely be able to do this for much of the night until the “GO BIG BLUE” chant happens. Kentucky will hulk up like Hulk Hogan and make a run, but much like Ohio State and Utah were able to weather the storm, it will be not be enough against these Dawgs.
Kentucky will not have enough in the gas tank, Georgia will push it down their throats far too much. Rayshaun Hammonds will challenge Nick Richards early in the game and this may be a game where calls finally go Georgia’s way. As long as Anthony Edwards, Tyree Crump, and Rayshaun Hammonds avoid the temptation to be the hero and impress scouts, they will find a path to victory.
This is Georgia’s opportunity, play as a team or play to impress scouts and fail. Scouts do love winners. Just ask Chuma Okeke.
Anthony Edwards is a 23.6% shooter in the mid-range and he is 70.4% in the restricted arc. Edwards misses so many shots because many are unassisted, forced shots. The difference between what Edwards does and what Tyree Crump does is that Edwards at least attacks, sets up his teammates, and defends. Edwards should be the best defensive guard in the 2020 NBA Draft. The moment of maturity is when Edwards realizes that he is a Top 3 pick and he does not have to impress anybody, he can save showing off the mid-range game for the NBA Draft Combine. Instead of creating his own three point shots that are out of rhythm, he can take shots that are in the flow of the offense and his shooting percentages will rise.
Edwards’ maturity will help dictate this game and Crean has been trying to show him that his shot selection is terrible. When Edwards makes better decisions, he is unstoppable. He does not need to be Superman for Georgia and that is counter-narrative. He just needs to be himself and let the game come to him. Edwards is a player who can get himself a triple-double, he does not need to score 30+ for Georgia to win. The talent is all around him.
The expectation is that Edwards shows a bit of that maturity tonight and gets himself some steals while he is at it.
Prediction: Georgia 76 Kentucky 69