It’s not hard for Tom Crean to see that Kentucky is a better team than the one his Indiana Hoosiers beat 73-72 in mid-December. His only problem is trying to decide how many different ways the Wildcats have improved going into Friday night’s game with his team in the NCAA South Regional semifinals in Atlanta.
"The team defense, I would say for one. Then I would say, like any team, they're better offensively,” said Crean. “They've added things. (Anthony) Davis with the shooting, there's so many different things. They move the ball really well, you can tell they go to their strengths. I think they know what their strengths are, so they really work at going to their strengths.
“The other thing they're doing right now is they're really finding matchups that they want. Whether it's isolating someone at the post, putting someone at the elbow, coming off the dribble hand-off. Doing a lot more for (Darius) Miller, his catch-and-shoot inside the arc is as good as I've seen it and he's getting it off quick. There's a laundry list of where their improvement is, but I would start with the team defense and they're really, really playing to their strengths on offense."
Kentucky leads the nation in blocked shots (312) as a team — four more and UK will break Connecticut’s single-season record — and Davis is tops individually with 166. That’s one reason UK has limited opponents to 37 percent shooting — also the nation’s best mark. The Cats also lead the nation in scoring margin (17.6 points per game).
"They're a great team on defense because they have length, because they have intensity, because they have tremendous athleticism,” Crean said. “They can really take some chances because Davis is behind there to block shots and to alter shots, which is as important as blocking them. To me, that is one of the greatest areas of improvement they've made, is that team defense is really, really good."
Kentucky struggled from 3-point range (2-for-7) in its loss at Indiana and went through a four-game spell where it was only 15-for-63 from 3-point range before erupting to make 10 of 20 against Iowa State in Saturday’s win. Kentucky is hitting 37 percent from 3-point range compared to 43.7 for Indiana, which was 9-for-15 from long range in the win over UK.
“I think they're a very good 3-point shooting team. They're like us in the sense they don't take a lot. We're a very good 3-point shooting team because we don't hunt the 3 and they don't either,” the Indiana coach said. “We take the 3 as part of the offense and we don't take the 3 as the majority part of it or the necessity part of the offense. I think they're the same way.
“I think they have excellent shooters. All you have to do is look at the fact that Anthony Davis is taking 3s now and he's a very good rhythm shooter. Darius Miller is really on a roll. Certainly Doron Lamb is an excellent shooter. Marquis Teague is coming off an excellent game. (Terrence) Jones has been able to shoot the 3 since he got there. The list goes on and on. (Kyle) Wiltjer obviously, (Michael Kidd-) Gilchrist can make 3s.
“So you can't look at them and say ‘we're not going to guard this person here, we're not going to guard this person there.’ You've got to be aware of all of them and that's an area where they're really, really dangerous. They don't put a player on the floor that can't impact winning on the offensive end or the defensive end.”
That certainly includes Teague, the freshman point guard from Indianapolis who is coming off scoring a career-high 24 points against Iowa State. He had a shaky first half in the Indiana loss, but played well the second half and finished with 15 points and five assists to offset three first-half turnovers. He was 6-for-15 from the field.
"We have to play great defense. It's not as much about an individual matchup as it is how good our team defense is,” Crean said of Teague. “He's got great quickness and explosiveness so if you let him get into the paint and make plays, he can do that with anyone in the country. There's no doubt about that. You just can't let him in there consistently, or even sporadically.”
Crean said keeping the “lane covered” is a priority for Indiana’s defense, but is also easier said than done because of UK’s talent.
“They're hard to match up with. A lot of teams we play, and certainly most teams at this time of the year, they're not putting anybody out on the court who can't make shots, who can't score,” Crean said. “Kentucky has guys who can do a lot of things. They can rebound the ball at a high level, they can drive it. They have a lot of multidimensional guys in the sense that they can score from 3. They can score on a pull-up if they want it or they can get all the way to the rim.
“Then you start to add the offensive rebounding abilities of Davis, Gilchrist and Jones. We're going to have to be completely aware and locked in. Our team defense is going to have to be fantastic, our weak-side defense certainly. We've got to defend penetration as much as possible. They don't give you many places where you're going to get a break."
Davis is a 63.2 percent shooter, the nation’s third best mark, but Indiana center Cody Zeller is fourth at 62.2. Davis had six points, nine rebounds and three blocks against Indiana when he played only 24 minutes because of foul trouble. Zeller had 11 points, seven rebounds and one block.
“They are two different players. In the sense of Anthony Davis, he is getting better. He has added the jump shot certainly to his game. He has set every single shot-block record probably that there is for freshman I think. He alters shots. You cannot just let him roam free,” Crean said. “He's very, very good, and there is just absolutely no way to duplicate how quick he gets up for a dunk, how quick he can rise. He is going to be fantastic as you see him getting better throughout the year.
“Cody, the same way, just continuing to improve. They are two different players but they are two young players that got a big part of their team and they continue to improve at an extremely high level. I do not think Kentucky has had to play without Anthony Davis much this year, and hopefully we won't have to play without Cody much on Friday night."