DES MOINES, Iowa --- In its opening round game, No. 4 seed Kentucky shattered the tournament single-game record for blocks with 15 against Stony Brook. That kind of length and athleticism are among the chief concerns for No. 5 seed Indiana ahead of the two teams' matchup Saturday.
"Kentucky brings so much length, and certainly Chattanooga brought a lot of length and we attacked that pretty well with their zone," Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. "But the length, the strength, the depth, all those things that Kentucky has are going to be a great challenge."
Length and athleticism are the Wildcats' biggest strengths. Their average height of 6-foot-4 allows them to cause havoc on defense and an ability to easily get points in the paint on offense.
The length also makes it easier to pass the ball and space out the offense. Opponents steal the ball on just 6.3 percent of Kentucky's possessions, the third-fewest out of 351 Division I teams according to KenPom.
Last night's record-setting block party was no coincidence, either. The Wildcats block 14.3 percent of opponents' 2-point shots, good for 10th nationally. As a result, opponents have managed the 12th-lowest 2-point shooting percentage with a 42.3 percent success rate.
In facing such an athletic defense, IU senior guard Yogi Ferrell said movement is key.
"We always like to preach on moving the ball, and I feel like against a team such as Kentucky since they play such great defense you've gotta move the ball, wear 'em down a little bit, try and get those bigs out, penetrate the ball into the lane, kick it out and just find a way," Ferrell said. "You especially can't go in there and drive in on those bigs."
As heralded as the Wildcats defense is, their offense has been the most dangerous this season. They have the top-rated offensive efficiency at 122.1, according to KenPom, and have the fifth-best scoring offense in the NCAA.
Indiana's scoring offense ranks second in the NCAA, while their offensive efficiency of 119.6 ranks fifth among KenPom teams. Together, the two high-scoring teams should produce a very up-tempo game on Saturday featuring plenty of fast breaks.
"Transition defense is going to be big," fifth-year guard Nick Zeisloft said. "They like to play up and down. We do, too. We've always liked to get up and down and we have to be physically and mentally locked in for anything they're going to throw at us and we will be."
The two guards who push Kentucky's frenetic tempo are sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray.
Ulis is an effective distributor who, when on the floor, accounts for 34.5% of the team's assists on baskets made by his teammates. His assist rate ranks 27th in the country among players with at least 40% of their teams' minutes played.
"He's been a great point guard all season, leading his team," Ferrell said. "They have athletic bigs, finds his shooters and he's a great part of that team and he's a big reason why they've been so successful this season."
Murray contributes the most to the Wildcat offense, using a team-high 25.4 percent of his team's possessions and taking 28.6 percent of his team's shots.
"He's probably their best scorer, and also their best shooter," IU sophomore guard Robert Johnson said. "We can't let him get going early."
While the 5-foot-9 Ulis remains a mainstay at the point guard spot, the 6-foot-4 Murray is more of a wing player.
Murray has spent 81 percent of his playing time over the last five games at the small forward position, compared to just seven percent at the shooting guard spot. His ability to play at both spots creates a number of matchup problems, mainly because it allows Kentucky to play with a traditional lineup if it wants to or go smaller with a 3-guard lineup.
That lineup has been the most common and used 15.1 percent of the time over the Wildcats' last five games, with 6-foot-9 big men Derek Willis and Marcus Lee at the 4 and 5 respectively.
"Anyone and everyone on that Kentucky team is a threat on the court," IU freshman center Thomas Bryant said. "So you've just got to be aware of anyone that comes on the floor and take it from there."
In its win over Stony Brook, Kentucky went with a lineup of Ulis, freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe, Murray, senior forward Alex Poythress and freshman forward Skal Labissiere. Both Poythress and Labissiere are athletic forwards, with Bryant likely matched up against Labissiere.
The athleticism of Kentucky's frontcourt gives it an advantage on the offensive boards, as it collects 37.7 percent of its own misses.
"We've got to do a great job of showing early help in everything," Crean said. "But without stepping up off their big men and allowing the lob drunks and drop off dunks and things like that that go into the easy post high ups."
Between two athletic, high-scoring teams, expect plenty of scoring opportunities on Saturday.
"Kentucky has always had players that can score at a high level, high rate," Ferrell said. "So, you know, the main thing is you've just gotta get your mind right, get ready for this game because it's going to be a very fun game."