John Clay

John Clay: Defense will decide Kentucky-Indiana basketball dream matchup

Never mind whether John Calipari is being stubborn or Tom Crean is being pig-headed or any of the other possible reasons why the basketball bluebloods that are Kentucky and Indiana have done the illogical and stopped playing each other anymore.

They are playing each other now. Now being Saturday. Now being in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It is now that from out of the cornfields here in the great state of Iowa, we college basketball fans, especially those who bleed UK blue or IU crimson, have our very own court of dreams.

How great is that?

“It’s kind of unfortunate that this game is being played this year,” said UK coach John Calipari on Thursday after his team had swatted away Stony Brook and Indiana had derailed Chattanooga’s choo-choo. “This should be another round or two later, but it is what it is.”

He’s right, this has the feel of a Sweet Sixteen or an Elite Eight or even a Final Four game. By general consensus, and with apologies to Middle Tennessee, we have the two most under-seeded teams in the entire bracket. Indiana won the Big 10, for heaven’s sake. Kentucky tied for the SEC regular season title then won the conference tournament.

That’s not all these two have in common, either, and we’re not just talking about their refusal to schedule the other. Both can flat out put the ball in the basket.

“They have guys who can get the rebound and push it,” said Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe on Friday. “We have guys that can get the rebound and push it. So it’s going to be an exciting and fun game.”

Kentucky leads the nation in offensive efficiency. The Cats shot 75.9 percent in the second half and scored 85 points against Stony Book. Indiana is ranked fifth in the nation in offensive efficiency. The Hoosiers shot 64.9 percent for the game and scored 99 points against Chattanooga.

Kentucky is led by its masterful point guard Tyler Ulis. Indiana is led by its masterful point guard Yogi Ferrell. At 5-foot-9, Ulis plays bigger. At 6-foot, Ferrell plays bigger.

So what normally happens when teams of such firepower collide? It comes down to which team can do the best job of keeping the other team from putting the ball in the basket. Defense wins championships. Perhaps you’ve heard.

Early in the year, Indiana had an open-door policy when it came to defense. Barely trying, Duke threw down 94 points on the Hoosiers in the ACC/Big 12 Challenge. To save its season, Crean’s club had no choice. It had to improve defensively, so it did.

Ken Pomeroy’s latest formulas rate Indiana 69th in defensive efficiency. Not great, but not horrid. Those around the IU program whisper that James Blackmon Jr.’s torn ACL forced Crean to play better defenders. The return of guard Robert Johnson from a sprained ankle is another plus.

Kentucky has had defensive issues of its own. For Calipari, an underrated defensive coach, this is not his typical defensive team. UK ranks 60th in defensive efficiency. They have had trouble protecting the defensive glass. After breakdowns in the SEC Tournament, they vowed improvement.

“I think we got more focused,” Ulis said on Friday. “Guys paid more attention to the scouting report.”

The work showed Thursday night. Stony Brook shot 18.9 percent the first half; 26.3 for the game. Kentucky blocked an NCAA Tournament record 15 shots. Freshman center Skal Labissiere rejected six.

“Better team defense,” he said Friday.

Was Stony Brook the determining factor in this uptick, or can Kentucky keep it up? That’s the question. Crean’s edge is a deep stable of perimeter shooters. He plays a lot of guys. Calipari’s edge is overall athleticism. His guys are quick and long.

“I wish we weren’t going to play them (Saturday),” Crean said on Friday. “I wish it was later down the road, but is what it is.”

It’s going to be great to have them back.

KENTUCKY VS. INDIANA

When: Saturday, 5:15 p.m.

Where: Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa

TV: CBS with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson

Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

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