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Pregame Breakdown: Kentucky at Robert Morris

Written by Craig Meyer on .

On a day when I think Andy Toole got more screentime on Sportscenter than the entire sport of hockey (this is a rough guess), let's look into the matchup that has received so much attention in Pittsburgh, and frankly across the nation, over the last couple of days.

When Kentucky has the ball


*** Let's get the obvious out of the way first -- Kentucky is a very long, athletic team playing against a Robert Morris team that doesn't really have a slew of traditional big men.

In many ways, it's a dream matchup for the Wildcats. Even without Nerlens Noel (if he were still playing, let's be honest, Kentucky would not be in the NIT), UK is a team that relies on its size and does alright with that gameplan. About 56.4 percent of the team's points come from two-pointers, the 64th-highest mark among Division I teams, and it makes 52.7 of those shots (18th best in DI).

*** He's far from being the team's leading scorer at 8.3 points per game, but I guess Willie Cauley-Stein could be considered the central figure in this tale of size disparity. Cauley-Stein is the tallest player on the UK roster at an even seven feet and he's become a much more integral part of the team's offense with Noel out for the season. Since that Florida game, Cauley-Stein has averaged 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while shooting 41.1 percent, not that great of a percentage for someone who spends much of their time on the low post.

Against Mississippi State, a team comparable to Robert Morris from a size standpoint (the Bulldogs' tallest player that saw action that day was 6-foot-9), he had 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three blocks. For what it's worth.

It's not going to end up happening, at least it's not likely to, but if the Colonials are really struggling guarding Cauley-Stein, they could always go with a hacking-based strategy, as he is just a 37.8 percent free throw shooter. Over the team's last six games, he has missed 18 of the 27 free throws he has attempted. His free throw rate of 50.3 is the third-highest of any active UK player, behind forward Alex Poythress (59.5) and guard Archie Goodwin (58.5).

(Note: Free throw rate is a metric that measures how often a player gets to the foul line relative to how often he tries to score)

*** If there's two matchups I'm really looking forward to seeing its between Velton Jones and Ryan Harrow at point, as well as Russell Johnson at Kyle Wiltjer at the four (when he comes off the bench).

Harrow's been a bit of an exception to John Calipari's proven system of getting elite point guards leading a team to success before moving on to the NBA. For people who have watched UK extensively this season, he has come across as mentally-fragile at times and has not been the type of effective floor general we've all become accustomed to seeing under Calipari-coached teams.

For the sake of comparison, let's look at how Harrow stacks up to other point guards in Calipari's tenure at UK in several key statistical categories (I would have gone back to include some from his Memphis days, but I think this works better):

Assist Rate Offensive Rating Assist:Turnover FG Percentage Points Per Game
Ryan Harrow (2012-13) 20.5 101.6 1.5:1 41.1 10.1
Marquis Teague (2011-12) 25.5 99.4 1.78:1 41.2 10.0
Brandon Knight (2010-11) 23.4 106.7 1.33:1 42.3 17.3
John Wall (2009-10) 34.8 108.0 1.62:1 46.1 16.6

Harrow is not the leader in any of those four categories and is extremely far behind the pack in assist rate, probably as good of a measure as any to evaluate a point guard's offensive value on the court.

How does this pertain to Velton Jones? It shows that he, if healthy, could be one of the few Colonials players that actually matches up well with his Kentucky counterpart. Harrow has been far from solid this year and Jones has arguably been Robert Morris' most important player and best perimeter defender. Again, this depends on the status of his shoulder, as he didn't practice yesterday.

From a more general standpoint, I'm pretty excited to see Johnson and Wiltjer square off. They're both similarly built (the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer has about three inches on Johnson), but the guys are pretty similar players -- both more perimeter-oriented, despite their size, who largely make a living shooting the three.

*** Going back to the height issue for Robert Morris, UK's average height is 78 inches, the 22nd-highest mark of a DI team. Robert Morris stands (no pun intended) at 75.8 inches, 300th among DI teams.

*** Because of this, and the gap in athleticism between the two teams, I would expect the Colonials to vary a bit from their traditional man-to-man defense. Maybe the team won't use an orthodox 2-3 zone, but I'd expect them to throw some zone looks at the Wildcats.

If there's one thing Kentucky's struggled with this season, it's shooting the ball from beyond the arc. None of the three players -- Wiltjer, Goodwin and Julius Mays -- who have attempted more than 50 3-pointers for Kentucky this season are shooting better than 37.4 percent (with Mays being the best of the bunch). Obviously, a zone doesn't forbid a team from penetrating, but it gives it more opportunities to take 3-pointers, something which could keep Robert Morris in the game.

However, I will say I think Wiltjer has the potential for a big game. There's no sound proof for this opinion, but he's 3-for-23 on 3-point attempts in the last six games. He's simply too good of a shooter for that to continue, so we'll go with the sometimes-incorrect adage that he's due.

*** Kentucky averages 1.06 points per possession. That's the second-best mark of a team Robert Morris has played this season, with Bryant being first at 1.08.

When Robert Morris has the ball

*** Given Kentucky's obvious size advantage down low, don't expect too much to change for Robert Morris in this game, especially in such a late juncture of the season.

For a team that got 36.2 percent of its points from 3-pointers this season, it's going to be business as usual against Kentucky. While Cauley-Stein is still pretty raw offensively, he's a force on the defensive end, with a block percentage of 8.6 that puts him among the top 60 players nationally. This doesn't mean that Robert Morris won't get points from inside the arc, but just don't expect too many of those to come from some of the team's taller players like Mike McFadden, Stephan Hawkins or Johnson with their backs to the basket.

Three players on the team -- Karvel Anderson, Lucky Jones and Coron Williams -- are shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, so why not play to your strength?

*** Based on this, I think it's fair to say the Colonials will need a pretty decent shooting day if they want to stay competitive in this game or potentially win it. When the team shoots better than 35 percent from 3-point range (about the national average), it's 17-3 this season. When it doesn't, it's 6-7. Against a faster, more athletic team, I'm guessing the Colonials will have to shoot at least 45 percent from deep to possibly leave the Sewall Center victorious.

As we saw in its loss to Mount St. Mary's, this is a team that struggles and can largely look lost when it doesn't make its long-distance shots.

*** I really do think a lot of this game will be mental for Robert Morris. I don't see many, if any, of the players being intimidated by Kentucky, but as anyone could tell by what the players were tweeting Sunday night, this is a game they're clearly excited about.

Add in the fact that they'll be playing in front of a charged home crowd watching a pretty rare matchup, and you might have a team that comes out and maybe tries to do a little bit too much or plays a little too tight. We'll have to see.

*** In eight of its last 10 games, Kentucky has given up over one point per possession, a streak that began even before Noel's injury. This is a team that's not playing its best defense right now.

*** I'm not incredibly into comparative scores because basketball is a game that's all about specific matchups (as we'll see and hear about in the NCAA tournament), but for what it's worth, Kentucky and Robert Morris both played at Arkansas, a team that  has not lost a home game since November.

The Colonials lost their game against the Razorbacks on Dec. 20 by a 79-74 final in what was an overall respectable effort in which they hung with the home team for basically the entire game. (That game was also an example of how RMU might struggle with a height difference, as the 6-foot-11 Hunter Mickelson came off the bench to score a season-high 16 points).

Kentucky lost to Arkansas 73-60 on Mar. 2, but that was a couple of weeks after Noel went down. Again, take this comparison with a heaping serving of salt.

 

Since I'm covering the game, I'm not going to offer up a score predicition, but I could really see it going either way. Robert Morris could come out, play with some poise and make it an excellent game that could be a benchmark win for a program that's largely overlooked, even locally. If the Wildcats have proven one thing this season, it's that they have a penchant for inconsistent, uneven performances, something that's indicative of a team without a whole lot of experience. Over the course of the last four years, the Colonials have faced players like C.J. McCollum, Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson, among others, so I don't see them getting too star-struck, though they have never played a team with the volume of NBA talent that Kentucky has (along with the overall aura of the program).

Then again, they could come out overly-excited, overwhelmed in both size, athleticism and overall talent, and Kentucky could go on to do what many nationally expect them to do: win with relative comfort.

It should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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