UK Men's Basketball

Dick Vitale wouldn’t write off Cats yet, but ‘this is not vintage Kentucky talent’

Dick Vitale, who was part of ESPN’s coverage of UK-Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Feb. 6, said the Cats “really have a dilemma shooting the basketball.”
Dick Vitale, who was part of ESPN’s coverage of UK-Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Feb. 6, said the Cats “really have a dilemma shooting the basketball.” aslitz@herald-leader.com

Never shy about expressing a basketball opinion, ESPN commentator Dick Vitale shifts to chatty overdrive when asked about this season’s Kentucky team.

First and foremost, Vitale questions UK’s shooting ability. He also wonders about post presence and the overall level of talent, the latter relative to Kentucky’s stratospheric standard, of course.

Yet Vitale cautions against giving up on the younger-than-ever Cats.

“I wouldn’t write them off,” he said last week. “I swear I would not write them off.”

Much can change in the next four weeks. And John Calipari’s record of postseason success, perhaps most vividly shown in the improbable Final Four runs of 2011 and 2014, should keep hope alive, Vitale said.

But as with everything about this Kentucky team, nothing seems certain and anything is possible in the NCAA Tournament.

“If they bring their ‘A’ game, they are capable of beating any of those (top) teams,” Vitale said. “They can go on a five- or six-game run in the postseason. They’re very capable.

“But they’re also very capable of getting knocked out in the first round.”

Vitale suggested that shooting is the overriding factor that will determine UK’s fate.

“We can sit here and analyze and evaluate every little thing about them,” he said. “They’re young, etc. The biggest dilemma they have (is) in the game of basketball, you have to have guys who can make shots. And they really have a dilemma shooting the basketball.”

Vitale spoke of three-point shooting as “an incredible tool.” He also made it seem indispensable.

“Without it, it becomes really difficult to have that big-time winning,” he said.

Of course, Kentucky went into the final 10 minutes of three games earlier this season without having made a three-point shot. In the loss at Missouri last weekend, UK didn’t make a three-point basket until less than three minutes remained.

Going into this weekend, Kentucky’s average of 4.8 three-pointers per game ranked 348th among 351 Division I teams. The Cats’ 33-percent shooting accuracy from beyond the arc ranked 274th.

Vitale speculated on why UK lacks consistent perimeter shooting. Maybe, he said, high school superstars can draw raves (and get to the rim) without having to shoot jump shots. Plus, freshmen typically must learn the difference between a shot and a good shot. And Jemarl Baker being sidelined all season because of a knee injury hasn’t helped.

Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan has speculated that the emphasis coaches put on defense diminishes the importance placed on the most fundamental part of the sport: putting the ball in the basket.

Coaches sound like they’re using a derogatory term when they refer to shooting as settling. Vitale suggested there might be an ulterior motive involved.

“I think coaches do a lot of that because they don’t want kids to psychologically think their shooting is a little bit suspect,” he said. “So we’re going to stay away from that. From the mental standpoint, they don’t want the kid to worry, to think about that.”

Vitale also wondered about Kentucky’s post play, both offensively and defensively. After opposing big men such as Thomas Welsh, Yante Maten, Duop Reath, Grant Williams, Tyler Davis and Chris Silva were productive earlier in the season, UK has been aggressively double-teaming the post recently.

As for offense, “they have no post presence,” Vitale said. “Who scores in the post for them?”

Kentucky has tried several players as post scorers: Nick Richards, PJ Washington, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt. The search for reliable low-post scoring continues.

Thinking of UK last season, Vitale said, “You had to respect (Bam) Adebayo down in that post.”

There’s the possibility that the UK players are good, but not capable of dominating at this early stage of development. So instead of displays of Kentucky’s superiority, we have competitive game after competitive game.

“This is not vintage Kentucky talent …,” Vitale said. “Anybody in their right mind will tell you that.”

No surprise he considers the one-and-done option unwise for any of this season’s UK freshmen.

“These kids need to come back to school (next season),” he said. “They need Kentucky more than Kentucky needs them.”

Maybe no one is to blame because Kentucky does not dominate. Maybe it is inevitable that on occasion Kentucky will be merely one of many good teams in college basketball.

“John has spoiled the Big Blue Nation,” Vitale said. “He’s given them so many great, great players, and they expect it all the time.”

Vitale, who worked the telecast of Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee on Tuesday, had that opinion reinforced as he mingled with fans in the Hyatt Hotel lobby.

“They were hysterical,” he said. “‘Gee whiz, what’s happening?’ ‘Duke’s beating us out in recruiting.’

“Give me a break. I said, ‘Do you realize there are 351 (Division I) schools? Three hundred and fifty would like to finish where Kentucky finishes in recruiting.’”

February Fanaticism?

To give fans a sense of the seeding and bracketing to come next month, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will announce on Sunday its top-16 teams with a month to go before Selection Sunday. The announcement, which also has promotional value for March Madness (February Fanaticism?), is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on CBS.

The chair of the committee, Creighton Athletics Director Bruce Rasmussen, pointed out last week that when the NCAA debuted this preview last year, it correctly identified 15 of the teams that would make up the first four seeds of each region. The only miss was Virginia. By Selection Sunday, Purdue joined the 15 correct picks.

And, Rasmussen added, all 16 teams making up the top four seed lines won at least one game in the tournament. That had happened only four times previously since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, he said.

In previewing the preview, Rasmussen said that there’s a “pretty strong consensus” at this juncture for Virginia, Villanova and Purdue being this year’s top three overall seeds.

Eye test

While in Indianapolis last week, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee went to the Xavier-Butler game.

“It was an exciting game,” chair Bruce Rasmussen said. “You get caught up in the energy and what is tremendous about college basketball, the enthusiasm of the home fans, the competition. You don’t always get that when watching on television.”

Rasmussen recoiled when asked about the committee using the so-called eye test to help judge teams. The committee does not use the term “eye test,” he said.

But Rasmussen acknowledged the value of attending games in order to judge a team’s size, its chemistry and efficiency of play.

Clarification

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy stirred the metaphorical pot with a tweet following his team’s loss at Tennessee last weekend. He tweeted that UT fans had a “good basketball intellect, unlike some places.”

Kennedy clarified during the SEC coaches’ teleconference Monday.

“My comment was a compliment toward them (Tennessee fans), nothing further …,” he said. “It was not singling out anyone, most especially our fans, who have been tremendous.”

Power profile

After winning the recent challenge with the Big 12, 6-4, the SEC finished its regular-season record against the other so-called power conferences at 21-26. That was 5-9 against the ACC, 10-8 against the Big 12, 4-2 against the Big Ten and 2-7 against the Pac-12.

Valentine Vandy?

Vandy is promoting what it calls a “great date night deal.” It involves two tickets to the Commodores’ home game against Mississippi State on Valentine’s Day, plus two mini-chocolate ganache-filled bundt cakes.

Total cost: $35. To order call 615-322-GOLD.

Happy birthday

To Henry Thomas. He turned 47 on Thursday. … To Winston Bennett. He turned 53 on Friday. … To John Calipari. He turned 59 on Saturday. … To Leroy Byrd. He turns 55 on Sunday (today). … To Andy Dumstorf. The former student fired from his job in UK’s sports information department because he was a Louisville fan turns 54 on Sunday (today). … To Josh Harrellson. He turns 29 on Monday. … To Hall of Famer Bill Russell. He turns 84 on Monday. … To Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. He turns 71 on Tuesday. … To Ray Edelman. He turns 66 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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