[Moderated by Matt Jones]
We learned yesterday of a surprising knee procedure that was performed on 1/2 of our Twin Towers 2.0, Willie Cauley-Stein. The procedure was described as minor but caused WCS to be unavailable for tonight’s game at Auburn. It is obviously unfortunate any time a player is injured but it becomes especially troubling for this young and struggling team which needs a string of convincing conference wins to even be considered to be taken off the bubble. When this season began, the prospect of having two talented 7-footers playing down low excited the Big Blue Nation; those who were around in the early 1980s remember what excitement Sam Bowie and the late Melvin Turpin brought to Lexington with their dominating presence in the paint and fans were looking for the same thing from this year’s bigs. Unfortunately, to this point, that type of powerful play has yet to show up. WCS has played well but struggled at times throughout the season while Noel has put this team squarely on his back and attempted to will his team to a win every single game.
Tonight’s game becomes an even bigger test for these young Cats as they will essentially be playing 6 players the entire night. When Cauley-Stein returns, however, it will be important for this team to be able to play the two centers together in a tough and bruising SEC. The biggest obstacle that UK has faced when both players have been on the court together is spacing; we have witnessed many offensive possessions where the lane becomes clogged and it becomes a chore for players like Harrow and Goodwin to effectively drive and score. To take a look at how effective UK can be on offense when they space the floor correctly, I have broken down a play from the early season win against Maryland in Brooklyn. Let’s start with the setup of the play:
We see Goodwin has the ball at the top of the post with Polson and Mays standing in the corner waiting for the play to begin. Both bigs, Noel and WCS, are at the top of the key ready to set a pick for Archie, depending on which side he chooses to initiate the drive. Notice the amount of space open between the top of the key and the corners; the basket is practically being unguarded. Next:
At this point, WCS and Noel have switched sides on the screens and Goodwin has fed the ball into Cauley-Stein at the three point line, with Polson (far right) beginning his movement on the play. Again, notice how far out the defenders are forced to play because of the spacing between the 5 Cats. Moving on:
A couple things have happened since the last frame. After passing to WCS, Goodwin drove the lane off a screen by Nerlens with Cauley-Stein looking for the quick inside pass. When it wasn’t there, he passed to Nerlens (seen above) and begins to move towards the free throw line to set the screen for Julius Mays to try and get him an open 3. Still, even through all the movement, the spacing has forced the Maryland defenders to play defense far away from the basket, including their post defenders who may not be comfortable playing that far out. Next:
Mays received the pass from Noel and didn’t have the open shot (I’m gonna go all in here and bet he pump faked). While the pass from Noel to Julius was occurring, WCS positioned himself nicely in the middle of the post and began to call for the ball. Polson, who you may have forgotten about, is ready to rotate to the top of the key as Nerlens slides onto the opposite post, forcing his man to come with him. The key to this is spacing, spacing, spacing. Let’s see what happens next:
Mays gives up the ball to Goodwin, pulling his man off of the double team on WCS, and allowing Willie to position himself in the post to score, evidenced by his right hand up in the air calling for the ball. Polson has finally made his way to the top of the key as Archie tries to feed the post. Last but not least:
Goodwin throws the ball into the post to Cauley-Stein, who turns to the inside (towards the paint) and finds Polson’s defender dropping down for the double team. As he does this, Jarrod makes a quick cut through the lane while Cauley-Stein’s 7-foot frame allows him to see over the double team and dish the ball to a Polson, who, as showcased above, has to do nothing more than simply lay the ball up off the glass for a quick and easy 2. Notice how FOUR Maryland defenders in the paint are in no position to block Polson, one of the less athletic players on UK’s roster. Due to the great spacing by the Cats, a huge lane opened up for Polson, allowing him to take the pass from a big man and score with no threat of being blocked.
The important thing to note about such a play is that Noel and Cauley-Stein can be interchanged at any point for this play to work. If you move #3 to the post and put WCS away from the ball, Nerlens has the same height advantage and passing ability to find the open man for an easy basket. For UK to have an effective and rhythmic offense, spacing the floor must occur to avoid a stalled play and a hurried shot to beat the shot clock. When spacing happens, baskets as easy as the one above become available almost every trip down the floor.
While contemplating what makes this team most effective when WCS and Noel are on the floor together, I realized that this wasn’t the first time Cal has been forced to tailor his offense around two post players being on the court at the same time. During his first year in Lexington, Calipari found himself with two talented bigs on the roster in the form of Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins. While looking through their highlights, I came across a play that I think could be used with this present team and demonstrates the importance of spacing when playing with such big post presence. The setup:
What you have here is 4 players (From L to R: Bledsoe, Cousins, Wall and Miller) above the 3 point line with Patterson on the left block with his man playing way off of him. As in the play we looked at before this, the defenders have been pulled out of their comfort zones and left the basket virtually unguarded once again (except for Patterson’s man who has cheated too far over). Wall has the ball and is waiting for Miller to come to the pass. Darius uses a quick cut towards the basket to lose his man and Wall bounce passes it to him as he heads for the basket. Next:
By this point in the above picture, Miller has already received the pass in stride and has a great angle to the basket. Because of his quick speed, he already has a step on both his and Wall’s defenders and drives straight for the basket. Because of the spacing of the four players above the arc, no defender except Patterson’s man has any chance at stopping Miller before he scores. Notice how far out Patterson is at this point; this forces his man to slide over and defend Miller, leaving Patterson open under the basket because of very poor defensive rotation on the part of Bledsoe’s defender. The end result:
Patterson’s man must commit to Miller who has an open lane to the basket, but by the time the Wake Forest player arrives Miller has already lobbed the ball to a soaring Patrick Patterson who slams home the alley-oop. Check out the similarities between this final scoring shot and the one from this year’s Maryland game; the player who begins the play almost totally out of the picture (Patterson in this frame, Polson in the above sequence) ends up being the one to score the easy bucket while no defender even has a shot at blocking either shot. The spacing of the floor by UK allows for the widest of lanes to open and the athleticism of the Cats creates opportunities for defensive breakdowns and easy baskets.
The play above, to my knowledge, hasn’t been used by this year’s team. I could easily see Goodwin or Poythress taking the place of a cutting Darius Miller, while WCS or Noel could be switched in for both Cousins and Patterson. Both of the above plays that are broken down rely on the ability of the players to space the floor and for the bigs to be able to pass out of the post or finish a dunk off of a lob. Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel both possess those traits and have the talent needed to either facilitate like in the Maryland play or score as the 2009/2010 Cats did against Wake Forest. We all wish Cauley-Stein a speedy and healthy recovery, but when he returns to action it will be important that Noel and him work together to space the floor evenly and create scoring opportunities because of the advantages that come along with stretching the defense away from the basket.
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