Remember a while back when everyone was fretting about Kentucky and all those close games they kept losing on the road? I do. Observers looked at the Wildcats' 2-6 record in SEC road games and said that John Calipari's team was unlikely to make it very far in the NCAA tournament. Teams that can't win away from home, the thinking ran, certainly can't win away from home in the NCAA tournament.
That is indeed customarily the case, but clearly Kentucky in 2011 represents an exception to that tendency. The Wildcats and that ugly 2-6 conference road record of theirs are one game away from the Final Four after their thrilling 62-60 win over No. 1 overall seed Ohio State on Friday night. How has UK won six games in a row -- counting their SEC tournament games -- outside of Rupp Arena? And, looking ahead, what are their chances against a very good North Carolina team?
Here are one observer's thoughts:
It's not that surprising that Kentucky has made it this far.
Obviously the team that wins a given game was better than their opponent on that particular night. But teams that lose games can still be very good teams -- especially if they're losing those games on the opponent's home floor. The Wildcats emerged from the SEC regular season with a good but by no means great 10-6 record, but that was a little misleading. UK was actually 0.12 points better than their SEC opponents on each possession they played, a scoring margin that compares favorably with those posted last year by Michigan State or West Virginia on their way to the 2010 Final Four. A bounce here or a tip-in there and Kentucky's 10-6 record could easily have been 12-4 or even better. In that event we'd be somewhat less surprised to find this team in the Elite Eight, but their overall performance really wouldn't be significantly different.
Josh Harrellson is much more important to Kentucky than his numbers say he is.
For the year the 6-10 senior from St. Charles, Missouri, is merely the Wildcats' sixth-leading scorer, averaging less then eight points a game. My recommendation to you is to ignore that number. As anyone who saw the Ohio State game can attest, Harrellson has become essential to UK's tournament run. Since the tip of the SEC tournament, the big man has pulled down 15 percent of Kentucky's misses during his minutes, a level of offensive rebounding that's equal to what John Henson is doing for North Carolina during the postseason. Harrellson's also made 72 percent of his two-point shots over the last six games. He may not be what you'd call agile, but then again neither was Brian Zoubek for Duke last year. Make no mistake: even with all of Kentucky's highly-recruited talent, having Harrellson on the floor has become very important for Calipari.
The longer the Cats extend their season, the better their defense gets.
In their game against Ohio State, Kentucky had to make a defensive choice: guard Jared Sullinger one-on-one, or give help from the perimeter. For the most part they guarded Sullinger straight-up, and it worked. Mind you, Sullinger had a very good game, notching a 21-16 double-double, but his teammates shot just 6-of-28 from inside the arc. During the regular season Calipari on occasion compared this team's defense unfavorably with last year's Kentucky D. Strictly speaking Coach Cal was right: last year's defense was better. But this team appears to be listening to their coach the further they play into March. UK's opponents in the NCAA tournament have made just 33 percent of their threes and 43 percent of their two-point attempts.
That being said, Kentucky's in for something new against North Carolina.
One of the most striking things about the Wildcats' tournament run is how slow-paced it's been. Partly that's a reflection of Princeton wanting to slow down Calipari's team in the round of 64, but actually the other two games -- against the Buckeyes and West Virginia -- haven't been that much faster. That figures to change against the Tar Heels, who averaged 71 possessions per 40 minutes in ACC play this year. I've mentioned how valuable Josh Harrellson has been to his team during this run. Against UNC we may have an opportunity to check not only his speed but also his conditioning, as he tries to stay with the likes of Tyler Zeller from end line to end line.
There's no doubt that North Carolina poses a challenge for Kentucky -- just as Kentucky poses a challenge for North Carolina. Zeller and freshman Harrison Barnes will receive the lion's share of UK's attention on defense, as those two have been by far Roy Williams' most effective sources for postseason points. Over the past six games Barnes has connected on 44 percent of his threes, while Zeller has made a living at the free throw line. Perhaps most importantly, Harrellson and Terrence Jones will need to protect the defensive glass. Against their last six opponents Carolina has rebounded 41 percent of their own missed shots.
It promises to be an excellent match-up between two storied programs with no shortage of top-level talent. But if Kentucky can duplicate their performance against Ohio State and guard the post straight-up without getting into too much foul trouble, this game could provide the latest in a long series of nail-biters. The Wildcats have seen a lot of those this season outside of Rupp Arena. They used to lose those games, but now they're winning them. Given Kentucky's performance all year long, that should come as no surprise.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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