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Hoops Preview: Texas Longhorns at Kentucky Wildcats

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Come at the king, you best not miss.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

This Friday, the Texas Longhorns get their shot at taking down number one. The undefeated Longhorns travel to Rupp Arena in Lexington to face the Kentucky Wildcats.

If you read my stuff, you already know that, for me, the outcome of this game is like deciding between Jessie Spano and Kelly Kapowski. There are no wrong answers. I'm just hoping for a good game.

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing this year's Kentucky bunch is this exchange from the Billy Bob version of Friday Night Lights.

Coach Gaines: So how is it out there?
Ivory Christian: They're fast, they're big, they're dirty... plus they're fast.
Coach Gaines: You said that already.

The things you think Texas does extraordinarily well because of its size and depth? Kentucky does it better.

Texas is one of the tallest teams in the nation (KenPom effective height of +3.2, 26th nationally). Kentucky is taller (+6.6, 2nd).

The block party put on by Ridley, Turner, Ibeh, et al has been pretty sweet, to the tune of 58 blocks (2nd) and a 20.3% block percentage (3rd). The Wildcats see you and raise you to 65 and 26.7%, located at the corner of 1st and 1st (a.k.a., the nexus of the universe).

Texas' interior D has been unpleasantly stifling. Opponents' effective FG% is 35.1% (4th). Well, Kentucky opponents are shooting 32.3%, worst in all the land.

Those offensive rebounds, though. Texas' offensive rebounding percentage of 41.2% is good for 16th nationally. But those pesky Wildcats again top the list, at 48.2%.

Movie quote number two? At this point, you're probably thinking:

Somebody once wrote: 'Hell is the impossibility of reason.' That's what this place feels like. Hell. I hate it already and it's only been a week.

Yes, that's from Platoon. Which so happens to be the marketing mantra emanating from the John Calipari hype machine this year. With nine McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, Coach Cal has implemented a platoon system as follows.

Blue Platoon (starters)
7' 0" Jr F Willie Cauley-Stein
6' 11" Fr F Karl-Anthony Towns
6' 9" Jr W Alex Poythress
6' 6" So G Aaron Harrison
6' 6" So G Andrew Harrison

White Platoon (reserves)
7' 0" So F Dakari Johnson
6' 9" So F Marcus Lee
6' 10" Fr W Trey Lyles
6' 6" Fr G Devin Booker
5' 9" Fr G Tyler Ulis

Lest you scoff the platoon doesn't work, recall that Kentucky used it to great effect when the Wildcats dismantled Kansas by 32 points. And that was with an offensive effort I'd charitably grade a C+. The Jayhawks scored 12 (!) points the entire second half. Kentucky also held Providence, a not terrible team, to 38 total points (and only 16 in the second half).

Now that you've sufficiently sharted your pants, let me outline the recipe for how Texas can beat Kentucky. First, a motivational word from Preacherman.

On offense: Don't play 1-on-2, let alone 1-on-5.

Ball movement. Ball movement. Ball movement. Kentucky's defense significantly slackens when it has to react rather than just act. Too often, Kansas' guards would drive into the paint without a map or a plan and throw up a prayer in the teeth of the D. Predictably, it got swatted. Or a post-player would try to create on his own without an inside-out game, and the Wildcats would just rotate an extra big to make scoring an impossible dream. Yes, Kentucky's defense is very, very good. It's basic man-to-man, as Kentucky has scrapped early attempts at playing zone. The Wildcats will deploy nominal full court pressure, but they force turnovers through on-ball pressure (see: Ulis, Tyler) and opportunistic wingspan. Texas has been a good passing team all season. Especially without Isaiah Taylor on the court to force dribble-drive pressure, the crisp distribution will need to keep up. Texas has to get the ball side-to-side, inside-and-out, probing Kentucky's defense. Take good shots when open, and get defenders out of position to fight for offensive boards.

On defense: Play pop-a-shot, not volleyball.

One thing Kentucky doesn't do very well? Shoot the ball. Kentucky is shooting just 34.6% from 3-point range and 65.3% from the line. The Harrison twins have vastly improved their soft-skills (decision-making, leadership, moxie, etc.) as sophomores, but are still prone to the occasional mental errors. Also, Aaron's three-point shot, despite good form and shot selection, hasn't been falling. Freshman gunner Devin Booker has heated up after a slow start (13-19 from distance in his past four games), but anyone else on the perimeter should be granted a shooting pass rather than an entry one. Once the ball gets inside, bigs need to earn their points from the line. Kentucky's centers (all 4 of them) shoot 56.8% from the field (79-139) and 54.8% from the stripe (46-84). To me, that's an easy game of "would you rather." I'm excited to see if Texas' defensive chops are up to snuff.

Overall: Do the things that Texas does well.

Yeah, Kentucky may be better, but the Longhorns aren't chopped liver. The Wildcats have yet to encounter a team that defends as well as Texas, that swats as well as Texas, that rebounds as well as Texas. Cameron Ridley will be the stoutest player Kentucky has faced. Jonathan Holmes the most experienced. Demarcus Holland the most tenacious. Myles Turner the most talented.

...and then...

If the Horns can fluster the Wildcats enough through their team strengths, then it's on to hoping the offense generates enough output to outflank Kentucky. Where I am attacking? Well, Kentucky lacks a true small forward. The Holmes, 4.0 model needs to flip a switch and realize he can take over the game. Like Texas, Kentucky likes to play fast on O and slow your roll on D. Easy transition points are always nice. Finally, can the Horns make some 3's? Kentucky's first two opponents shot 11-27 (40.7%). The Wildcats didn't face a decent 3-point shooting team again until Providence, which hung around for 30 minutes before capitulating. Had the Friars been able to shoot better than 3-12 from distance...who knows? Now would be a great time for a Javan "heat check" Felix 6-8 shooting night.

The game is this Friday on ESPN at 6 p.m. Should be a doozy. Hook 'em.