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7 Ways To Beat Kentucky

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 30 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

THE WILDCATS ARE are not invincible. After all, they were tied after 40 minutes against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, had to survive a last-second 3-point attempt to beat LSU and trailed Georgia with four minutes left. So how do you convert their weaknesses into a W? We turned to seven NBA scouts and execs who've analyzed UK extensively for a topple-worthy tourney plan. We're not saying it'll be easy; we're just saying it can be done.

1 Pack the Paint on D
Kentucky's D is special. Its offense? Merely very good. Yes, the Wildcats rank eighth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, at 119.7 points per 100 possessions. But, says one scout, "they've thrown up some stinkers on the offensive end." To create those stinkers, some pros advocate going to a zone against Kentucky, which might be more effective in disrupting UK's rhythm but also makes rebounding more difficult. (The Wildcats grab offensive rebounds on 40.4 percent of their misses.) "Sometimes I think their best offense is getting a shot up and just letting their size and athletes go get it," one scout says. That's why others prefer a pack-line style of man-to-man D, which makes it easier to box out after a missed shot. A contain-and-contest scheme also helps opponents find wings Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison -- the Wildcats' two main deep threats-and run them off the 3-point line.

Good News For:
Virginia,
which has perfected pack-line D, so it wouldn't have to change its approach at all.
Arizona, which plays a similar man-to-man system and has the size to compete on the boards.
Utah. Its disciplined athletes have what it takes to make the Cats work for points.


2 Tempt The Harrison Twins
It's fair to say the NBA scouts we consulted aren't too fond of the Harrisons. Many suggested backing off of them and simply trying to encourage them to do things that lose games. Andrew, the point guard, turns the ball over on 19.4 percent of possessions, and Aaron, known as the shooter, has hit just 31 percent of his 3-pointers. "You want the Harrisons taking those 5-to-10-foot shots they like," one scout says. "Especially Andrew -- if he takes 20 shots and hits 10 and you lose, I think you live with that rather than giving up 20 offensive rebounds and open looks to Devin Booker." Scouts also question their ability to make good decisions on the move and recommend giving them driving angles that let them make bad decisions. For Kentucky as a whole: "Force them to play as individuals, take specific players away and reduce them to a two-man team," a scout says. Encouraging the Harrisons to assume the roles of co-heroes just might cause Kentucky to self-destruct ... until John Calipari rolls with Tyler Ulis and Booker in their place.

Good News For:
Villanova.
With a cadre of tough guards, Nova is capable of getting into Kentucky's heads.
Butler, which backs down to no one. (See Roosevelt Jones' trash-talking game.)
Wichita State and its veteran, talented backcourt that wants tourney revenge.


3 Don't Help In The Post
UK's bigs might be future pros, but they aren't refined low-post scorers. Karl-Anthony Towns shoots 48 percent on post-up plays, but Dakari Johnson (38.6 percent) and Willie Cauley-Stein (40.5 percent) are less effective on those shots. "Those guys are all trying to finish over their left shoulder, so if you can force them over their right, you've got something," one scout says. Cauley-Stein and Johnson, in particular, are more effective scoring off teammates' penetration or offensive rebounds. Yet if they see single coverage, they'll want to exploit it. That's a better option for the defense than sending a second defender to help, which would free UK's other post player to run wild on the offensive glass, or sending a guard and leaving a 3-point shooter open. Still, this strategy comes with two caveats: Defenders must push UK's bigs off the block. And Towns might require a double-team, or the threat of one to confuse him. But if an opponent can defend without fouling and force Kentucky to score two points at a time, that's a win for the D.

Good News For:
Arizona.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley can hold their own against UK's giants.
LSU. Big men Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey nearly spurred an upset in February.
Gonzaga and its post rotation of Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and ex-Cat Kyle Wiltjer.


4 Run! But Don't Rush (And Find An Easy Shot)
Get a stop on D and corral the rebound ... then what? "Push," one scout says. "The first clean look you get is probably the best shot." However, cautions another, "Slow it down and minimize possessions." There is no sight more frightening in college ball than UK's half-court defense. The Wildcats allow an adjusted 85.8 points per 100 possessions, block 18.4 percent of opponents' 2-point shots and hold teams to a ridiculous 39.7 effective field goal percentage. The best shots are generally available in transition. So the answer is a compromise: Push the ball up the court and look for an easy basket. If it's not there, pull the ball back out and work the clock.

Good News For:
Duke.
Point guard Tyus Jones knows when to push and when to reset.
North Carolina, which scored 70 off 67 possessions against UK in December.
Iowa State, which loves to run but can also play through forward Georges Niang.


5 Run Ball Screens, Lots Of Them
The Harrisons are in the crosshairs yet again, this time for their defensive weaknesses, along with forward Trey Lyles. "You can drive them-no question," one scout says. That's true on the pick-and-roll too. Scouts suggest running bundles of ball screens against the Harrisons and Lyles and using whomever Johnson or Towns is guarding as the screener. The key is avoiding Cauley-Stein, who is quick enough to switch onto a guard-and shut him down. "He's going to cause a lot of havoc," says a scout.

Good News For:
Notre Dame.
The Irish lead the nation with 1.09 points per pick-and-roll.
Wisconsin and Frank Kaminsky, who can burn UK with his 3-point shooting off the pick-and-pop.
Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have multiple high-level options for ball handlers and screeners.


6 Kick Back Out For 3s
The Wildcats don't worry much about dribble penetration because anyone trying to finish at the rim has to face their army of shot blockers. Attempting to score over those guys is a fool's errand. Instead, the proper play is to kick the ball back out, hopefully for a 3-pointer. That takes poise, and, as one scout puts it, "you have to make a preponderant number of 3-pointers over their length." But that's the type of high-risk/high-reward style teams should employ when trying to trigger an upset.

Good News For:
Notre Dame,
which plays this style all day and hits 39.2 percent of its 3-point shots.
Duke. With Justise Winslow at PF, Duke can surround Jahlil Okafor with drivers and shooters.
Villanova. It takes 43 percent of its shots from downtown -- and hits 38.9 percent.


7 Get back Fast and Thwart Breaks
Kentucky doesn't play as fast as it should. The Wildcats average 63.4 possessions per game (251st in the country), and though some of that is because opposing offenses can take forever to find a clean look, the Cats don't make transition offense a priority. Opponents can't abandon the offensive boards, but the priority should be preventing a fast break. Advises one scout, "You have to create a rule on who goes and who doesn't." Do that-and everything else on this list-and a team will have a chance against the Wildcats. As one scout says, "They're not invincible. Hell no. But to beat them, it's going to take a special set of circumstances."