As the Marquette Golden Eagles get ready to take on the NCAA tournament in Anaheim, MarquetteHoops.com's Nick Chmurski breaks down the the #11 seed Kentucky Wildcats (18-12, 12-5 SEC)
# 11 Kentucky Wildcats (18-12, 12-5 SEC)
Head Coach: Billy Gillispie (18-12 1st Season, 118-70 6th Season Overall)
Probable Starting Line-up
F – Ramon Harris (6-6 Sophomore; 4.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
F – Mark Coury (6-8 Sophomore; 2.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
G – Ramel Bradley (6-2 Senior; 16.0 ppg, 3.4 apg)
G – Derrick Jasper (6-6 Sophomore; 4.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
G – Joe Crawford (6-5 Senior; 17.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
G – Jodie Meeks (6-4 Sophomore; 8.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
G – Perry Stevenson (6-9 Sophomore; 5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
For the tenth time in NCAA Tournament history, Marquette will face Kentucky. The Golden Eagles hold the all-time head-to-head record (5-4) and have won the last two meetings including the memorable 83-69 victory in the 2003 Elite Eight when Wildcats were ranked number one overall in the country.
Kentucky has had a roller coaster of a season under first year coach Billy Gillispie. The Wildcats started out the season 4-1 but proceeded to drop eight of their next eleven games in route to 7-9 record just three games into SEC play. The patient Gillispie however, refused to let his club quit and the result was an 11-3 record down the stretch and their 17th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
"I am just happy to be in the tournament," said Gillispie. "I think it is a great testament to the guys that believe in themselves and what they are trying to do. I think we can all learn to have hope, trust and belief after watching this team survive so many intangibles all season."
These intangibles simply have not been limited to trying to fight their way out of a losing slump; the Wildcats have also had the strain of adjusting to Gillispie's new system and trying to deal with key injuries. The later of these two continues to affect Kentucky as star freshman, Patrick Patterson, is out for the remainder of the season with a stress-fracture to his ankle. Patterson, the McDonald's All-American a season before, had been averaging 16.4 ppg and 7.7 rpg for the Wildcats.
Since Patterson's injury, Kentucky has become almost completely reliant on its guards. The Wildcats have gone with a three guard line-up and the majority of their scoring comes from the senior guard duo of Bradley and Crawford. In their final collegiate seasons, these two have played extended minutes and helped to turn the season around and make Kentucky's run to the NCAA tournament possible.
"It is very rewarding because a lot of people were counting us out; we would hear that we were not going to make the tournament this year," said Bradley. "We just kept working hard and kept improving. Now it feels so good to be in."
Not only has Kentucky become reliant on these guards, they have also been very dependent on a short rotation. In their overtime loss to Georgia in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, four Wildcats played over 40 minutes – Jasper (44), Crawford (44), Bradley (45) and Harris (45) – while Stevenson saw 37 minutes of action and the rest of the team played just ten minutes. This lack of depth may come to hurt Kentucky as fatigue sets in.
Look for Kentucky to try and slow the pace of the game down in to half-court affair. The Wildcats do not want to get out and run with the Golden Eagles who have a much deeper bench. Kentucky will hope to limit its turnovers and get hot from behind the arc due to its lack of an inside presence since Patterson went down. If Kentucky is to win this first round match up they must have big performances from their senior guards while playing solid defense making sure to get back in transition.
Interesting match ups will likely come at the guard positions where Jerel McNeal will likely guard Crawford and Dominic James would seem to pair up with Bradley. Another intriguing match up could possibly come in the form of Lazar Hayward guarding the high-energy Stevenson off of the bench. Everyone can be certain of one thing though; Tom Crean will do everything he can to have his team play physically and turn this game into a track meet.
Tip time is scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Anaheim, California at 1:30 p.m. CST on CBS.