Over the past six years, Kentucky has made trips to the state of Texas during the SEC season to play important games. In the years when Texas A&M thrived, Kentucky’s trips to College Station were some of the better and more significant moments of an SEC basketball season.
By Matt Zemek
This Saturday, Kentucky once again goes to the state of Texas in the middle of an SEC season, but this time the game is not against an SEC team. The former Southwest Conference program the Wildcats will face is not Texas A&M, but Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders, under coach Chris Beard, aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, when they reached the national championship game and took Virginia to overtime before falling short, but they are still likely to make the NCAA Tournament and are therefore an opponent which will have Kentucky’s complete attention. Let’s look at what Big Blue needs to do in Lubbock:
1 – Muscle Men
Texas Tech’s ride to the national title game last season – within an eyelash of a championship – was based on its rugged, ruthless, positionally sound defense. Expect Texas Tech to play locked-in defense in this game, which means Kentucky will have to work for every basket and rebound. The key point to note here is that without Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech doesn’t have the length or dynamic athleticism near the rim it possessed a season ago. This is a game in which Kentucky has to be ready to play – and win – a street fight. The Wildcats can do this because they should be able to outmuscle the Red Raiders on the glass and sufficiently protect the rim. This is a Nick Richards game. If he plays his best, it will be very hard for Texas Tech to win. This doesn’t mean the rest of the Wildcats are irrelevant; they need to help Richards on the boards. However, Kentucky’s most direct path to victory is winning the physical battle with Texas Tech for loose balls.
2 – Transition defense
The Texas Tech offense can and will bog down, so the Red Raiders are likely to seek opportunities to push the ball down the court and get fast-break baskets before Kentucky can set up its halfcourt defense. John Calipari has to make his team especially attentive to the need to get back after misses and shut off those upcourt rushes by Texas Tech. Part of this game key also involves Kentucky players taking shots in which the other four players on the court are in good position to get back on defense. Shooting a corner three when every other UK player is in the paint is precisely how Texas Tech can get runouts and easy buckets.
3 – Ashton Hagans
Kentucky works best when Hagans displays a great floor game, especially in road environments against good teams. If Kentucky is going to round into form in the next several weeks, Hagans becoming a supremely reliable player who is constantly on top of the situation is at the top of this team’s checklist.