1) For the Buckeye fans out there that haven't watched a lot of UK basketball this year, what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of this team?
- Shooting. Kentucky is a very good shooting team, although not quite as good as the Buckeyes.
- Speed. The Wildcats this year are even faster, as a team, than last year. Brandon Knight is not as fast as John Wall (nobody is), but he is just one step down in speed, and any team facing the Wildcats, especially a slower team, will regret it if they send their guards to the offensive glass.
- Ballhandling. Kentucky has the 9th best turnover percentage in college basketball.
- 2-point defense. The Wildcats are 6th in the country in defense inside the arc, and 6th in blocked shot %. Kentucky is incredibly long defensively, and that gives teams a lot of trouble inside.
- Execution. Kentucky has become a very good, surprisingly good even, execution team. They may be the best pick and roll team in the country.
- Talent. Kentucky may have more overall talent than any team in the country.
- Depth. Kentucky can only put 6.5 quality players on the floor. I count Eloy Vargas as half a quality player, because he makes quality plays about half the time now.
- 2-point offense. Kentucky does a fairly poor job of scoring inside, although they have been better of late.
- Getting to the line. Kentucky, despite its attacking style, does not get to the line very much. When they do, they are almost unbeatable, but they don't do it very often.
- Steals. Kentucky doesn't get many steals, because they simply don't attack on defense. They lack the personnel to do so.
- Experience. The Wildcats are a very inexperienced team starting 3 freshmen.
- Dumb fouls. Remarkably, Kentucky doesn't do a great job at avoiding fouls, although they have been much better lately.
Learning how to be physically tough. Kentucky has a lot of skill players on the team, and skill players don't like a lot of contact, usually. The young guys at Kentucky took a long time to learn how to match the physicality that you get in college basketball. They were pushed around as recently as the Arkansas game about a month ago.
Since then, the Wildcats have made it their mission to be at least as physical as their opponents, and consequently, they have been winning every game. Kentucky dominated Alabama, the toughest team in our league from a physical standpoint, in the SEC tournament.
3) A lot has been made of the Harrellson-Sullinger battle by the media already. Obviously Harrellson hasn't seen a guy in Sully's league yet this year, do you think he can hold his own?
Probably not. To be perfectly honest, Sullinger is a lot more skilled than any pivot player in the SEC. But Harrellson does have some things that will give Sullinger trouble, namely he is bigger and just as strong. The best post players in the SEC have a length advantage over Harrellson, but Sullinger does not, at least, not a huge one.
Sullinger is more athletic than Harrellson and has outstanding footwork for a freshman, but at 6'11/280 lbs., Harrellson will not be rooted out as quickly as some other players have been, and Harrellson has excellent hands and defensive footwork himself. There is no better pick and roll player in college basketball, both offensively and defensively, than Josh Harrellson. Harrellson is also a great offensive rebounder, and a steadily improving offensive player.
But Sullinger, if we don't double-team him, is likely to score at least 20 on Harrellson. I don't think he can get much more than that, though, but we'll see.
4) What other matchups do find intriguing in this game?
A lot depends upon where Calipari plays DeAndre Liggins. There is really no telling where that might be, although I suspect it will be on David Lighty at first, but he won't stay just there. He will probably also be guarding Aaron Craft, to reduce his effectiveness, and Jon Diebler when he comes in. He may also do some duty on William Buford.
Liggins can guard every player on the floor except Sullinger, and he is nothing less than a nightmare. He has incredibly long arms, quick feet, and is the most intense and determined defensive player I have seen at Kentucky since Cliff Hawkins his senior year. He is a horror for the offensive player, and no mistake.
Outside of that, it will be interesting to see who Thad Matta tries to use to guard Terrence Jones. Dallas Lauderdale manifestly cannot do so -- Jones will take him off the bounce and foul him out of the game. So how Matta tries to defend Terrence Jones will be very interesting. If Jones plays his best, I don't think OSU can do much to stop him. Fortunately for OSU, he has not played particularly well in a long time.
I am also intrigued by the Harrellson-Sullinger matchup and whether or not Aaron Craft can guard any of Kentucky's guards. Even though Craft has very good lateral quickness, he has never tried to guard a player with the speed and athleticism of Brandon Knight. There simply aren't any players like that in the Big Ten. Liggins is too big for him, and Doron Lamb also has a size, but not a quickness, advantage. Perhaps Lighty or Buford will try to guard Knight, although I don't think those matchups are much better, on paper.
Finally, who will guard Darius Miller? Miller is too big for Lighty and Buford, too quick for Lauderdale and too athletic for Diebler.
5) What do you think is the biggest key for the Wildcats on Friday night?
Defensively, the first key will be how well UK can defend on the perimeter. Ohio State is simply an outstanding shooting team, but Kentucky does have experience with teams like that, namely the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Wildcats had trouble guarding Jon Jenkins, but that's because they ran him off screens constantly to free him up. I haven't seen the Buckeyes play that kind of game with their shooters, mostly because Buford and Lighty are so athletic and can get their own shot. But if UK can force them to put it on the deck, that would be a win, defensively.
The second key will be how well Kentucky can guard Sullinger. If Harrellson can force him out of deep post position with his size and stay in the game, Kentucky will simply try to take away the three and force Sullinger to score on every play. If Kentucky is forced to double team or zone, then things will be very difficult for the 'Cats unless Ohio St. misses from the three more than they have been.
Offensively, Kentucky must be able to score inside. The Wildcats will make threes, but can they get points in the paint and force the defense to be honest? If OSU can force UK to play exclusively from the perimeter, the Buckeyes have an advantage.
The final key is how well OSU defends in transition. Kentucky has a speed advantage and really gets the ball out on the break. Will OSU send its big guards to the offensive glass, or will they keep them back?
6) What is your prediction on the outcome of the game and final score?
I predict a very close, hard-fought game. Ohio St. is more experienced and a better shooting team, which is a tough combination to overcome with pure talent and athleticism. Those two reasons, experience and shooting, are why OSU should be favored to win.
I am picking Kentucky, though, and I admit it's mostly homerism and wishful thinking. But I honestly believe that Kentucky presents problems that OSU has not encountered before, and that makes this game a virtual toss-up. Kentucky has played a poor man's Ohio State team in Vanderbilt, a team that shoots the ball well from the outside and has a dominant big man. How much better the Buckeyes are at the same game will be the question for the Wildcats.
Kentucky 82, Ohio State 81.