Trailing Ohio State 31-19 midway through the first half Saturday, Kentucky went where many teams go when in need of a basket or an opportunity to shoot free throws or, ideally, both. UK got the ball near the basket.
What happened next said a lot about this Kentucky team’s post-up game at this stage of the season.
First, the ball went to Alex Poythress. As he maneuvered for a shot, a defender stripped him of the ball. It went out of bounds.
Then Skal Labissiere took a pass at the post. A defender ripped the ball from his grasp.
Having retrieved the loose ball and gained a third-chance opportunity, UK went again to Labissiere. He pivoted toward the basket and a defender tied him up.
The possession arrow favored Kentucky. But by now, the Cats only had time for a little-chance three-point throw to beat the shot clock. It missed.
Surely, at that moment, UK fans missed the halcyon days of last season when big men Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson imposed Kentucky’s will on opponents.
“Kentucky, at least for this year, has come back down to Earth,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said.
On the plus side, the same can be said for many other college teams.
“Most teams don’t have a low-post scorer to throw it in to,” Fraschilla said. “Those guys have gone the way of the buffalo.”
Increasingly rare, but not extinct seemed an apt analogy for low-post dominators. Ohio State and UCLA, the two teams that have beaten Kentucky this season, did not do it with low-post power. But it should make UK fans uneasy to think their team has not established an offensive presence around the basket, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.
“I can think of very few Final Four or championship teams that didn’t have a significant post presence,” he said early this month.
Kenny Walker, who gave Kentucky just that kind of presence in the 1980s, said a post-up game separates pretenders from contenders.
Of any team not having a post-up game, Walker said, “Against bigger, stronger teams, yeah, that’s going to be a problem.”
Sam Bowie, who preceded Walker as the Cats’ low-post man in the 1980s, also said it was essential not to be solely dependent on guard play.
“Very, very important,” he said. “You must establish some type of low-post threat because, unless you’re the Golden State Warriors, that doesn’t work.”
I can think of very few Final Four or championship teams that didn’t have a significant post presence.
Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst
No one can accuse UK Coach John Calipari of not trying to find a low-post scorer.
Labissiere got the first chance this season. Then after saying Labissiere was no Shaquille O’Neal and looking to others, Calipari again turned to the freshman against Arizona State and Ohio State.
Labissiere made one of nine shots in those games and didn’t shoot a free throw.
“Not ready physically to score in the post consistently,” Fraschilla said of Labissiere.
Kentucky tried Poythress, who at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds has the bulk to make his presence felt.
“An awesome option,” Walker said of Poythress. “He’s the only one on the team that has the body to really fight and hold that position.”
But Poythress has not yet been the answer. Or as Calipari said before the Arizona State game, Poythress needed to excel against juniors and seniors who could match his combination of size and athleticism.
Marcus Lee, whom Walker called UK’s “most consistent big guy,” also has gotten the ball in the post.
“Alex and Marcus are just good college players when they play with a lot of energy inside,” Fraschilla said. “They can make things happen.
“But that’s not necessarily their strength either in terms of throwing it in and letting them back opponents down.”
Typically, a low-post threat causes defenses to react. More than one defender converges, thus creating more space for teammates. In a classic sense, the player posted up receives the entry pass, then passes back out to a teammate who’s open for a jump shot or can drive around the defender running out to contest the perimeter shot.
None of that happened against Ohio State, Kentucky stayed close only because of an extraordinary second-half performance by Jamal Murray. His 27 points after halftime surpassed the record for a UK player in a half since Calipari became coach. Julius Randle scored 23 in the second half against Michigan State on Nov. 12, 2013.
Murray’s seven three-point baskets and 33 points against the Buckeyes were both the second-most by a UK player in Calipari’s time as coach. Eric Bledsoe made eight three-pointers against East Tennessee State in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and Terrence Jones scored 35 points against Auburn on Jan. 11, 2011.
Fraschilla suggested that it might take guard scoring, though surely not to the spectacular extent displayed by Murray, to create opportunities for Kentucky’s low-post players. That would be a reverse of the traditional inside-out approach to scoring.
“With Kentucky’s post players this year, they have to play off the Wildcats’ guards more than when they had Anthony Davis or last year when Karl got going at the offensive end,” Fraschilla said. “Kentucky has top-five, top-10 talent. But the post play is human this year.”