Kentucky Must Be Wall's Team to Thrive
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Los Angeles Lakers were the most talented team in basketball. And the most fractured. Why? Because of a continuing rift over who the driving force of the basketball team's personality would be, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal. Would the Lakers pound the ball inside and allow Shaq to be the hub or would they funnel everything through Kobe's ball-handling, allowing his creativity to flourish? Ultimately, Kobe won that battle, and Shaq departed for Miami.
Now, the most talented team in college basketball has a similar problem, minus, at least for the present, any rumblings of major personal discord between the team's two best players. Is Kentucky John Wall's team or are the Wildcats Demarcus Cousins' team?
Think it doesn't matter since both players are likely to be top five NBA draft picks if they leave early?
And I'll tell you why: With Cousins as the offensive focus, Kentucky is a much more beatable team. In fact, with Cousins as the offensive hub, this Kentucky team is not going to advance past the Sweet 16.
First, a quick look at Tuesday night's box score, the Cats' first loss of the season, at South Carolina. Upon first glance, Cousins was dominant, 9-of-17 from the floor for 27 points and 12 rebounds. When Cousins got the ball inside, he went hard to the basket and finished or was fouled, making 9-of-10 free throws. At first blush, Cousins, who equaled his career high in points, was dominant and needed the ball on every possession.
But did he?
In that same game, Kentucky's second-most shots were taken by Wall, who was 6-of-16 from the floor. Combined, Cousins and Wall attempted 58 percent of the Wildcat baskets and scored 74 percent of their points. Here's a telling stat, though, as only four Wildcat players attempted free throws in the game. Cousins and Wall combined to shoot 17, the rest of the team attempted just four, two each by Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson.
What's this tell you?
When Cousins is the primary option, the rest of the Wildcat offense is slower-paced, stifled, and not able to attack the basket. What's more, the rest of the team isn't aggressive at looking for its own opportunities to score -- and this makes Kentucky much easier to guard.
Especially when you consider this fact, the least developed part of Cousins' game is his passing, witness the zero assists against South Carolina. In fact, despite all of his touches, Cousins is averaging less than a single assist a game. So once the Wildcats feed him the ball inside, it's unlikely to come back out.
You think the rest of Kentucky's offensive players might have noticed this fact?
It's why they were all standing around watching Cousins work inside instead of making themselves hard to guard.
It isn't surprising that Cousins' passing is weak since the last skill that a dominant big man often picks up is the ability to distribute the ball out of the post when he doesn't have a shot. His lack of passing ability is exacerbated when you consider the following: Cousins lacks range more than 10 feet from the basket.
Why does this matter?
Because while he's a dominant inside presence, Cousins also clogs the lane and makes it more difficult for penetrating Wildcat guards like Wall and Eric Bledsoe to get to the rim. And this raises a more interesting question: Is John Calipari able to integrate a potentially dominant post-presence into his dribble-drive offense or are the systems inherently conflicted?
And, to me, that's the most interesting question of all.
Because Calipari has never coached a big man of Cousins' ability since adopting the dribble-drive offense. What's more, how many dominant big men has Calipari coached in his entire college career?
I'll tell you: one -- Marcus Camby at UMass.
And Camby's game was nothing like Cousins'. Camby was lean and athletic, capable of taking bigger men outside and hitting jumpers on them or of beating them to the basket with his quickness. Every other good post player from Calipari's team has been capable of stepping away from the basket and making a shot, or simply been a garbage player around the rim who gobbled up offensive rebounds and created his own scoring opportunities like a Joey Dorsey.
Cousins is neither.
Kentucky's top two scorers are Wall and Cousins. Neither man's game is particularly complementary of the other; together they are not a stronger tandem. And there you have it, a fascinating hoops dilemma, how to reconcile too much talent.
Kentucky has two of the best players in college basketball -- maybe even the two players that could go 1-2 in the NBA Draft this summer -- but can they be integrated in the next two months in a way that can lead to a championship? And if not a championship, at least a FInal Four berth? Because anything less than the Final Four and Kentucky fans aren't interested.
Will this become Wall's team or will it become Cousins' team? Stick with Wall and the Final Four is a reality, roll with Cousins and you're tapping out in the Sweet 16.
And ultimately can Calipari pull a Phil Jackson and make his own collegiate version of Kobe and Shaq a championship tandem?
That's the $4 million question.