Knight could be key to sweet 16 clash

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Knight could be key to sweet 16 clash

Post  MULECHOPS on Thu Mar 24, 2011 10:53 pm

Sure, it took Brandon Knight nearly 40 minutes to shake off the jitters -- and the Princeton Tigers' defense -- in his NCAA tourney debut. But since his early second-round struggles, all the Kentucky Wildcats' freshman point guard has done is lay in a game-winner to beat Princeton and score a career-high 30 points to help defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers in the round of 32. His next task? Find a way to lead the Kiddie Cats past the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in an East Regional semifinal tonight in Newark.

As Jay Bilas, Doug Gottlieb and Joe Lunardi already have discussed here on Insider, the No. 4 Wildcats need to find a way to at least slow down the nation's most efficient offense; after all, OSU drained a ridiculous 28 of 50 3-pointers in its first two tournament games. While Kentucky is an able defensive squad, ranking 24th in the country in adjusted efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, it's going to have to put pressure on the Buckeyes by scoring buckets. And that's why Knight's matchup with fellow frosh point Aaron Craft is key.

A year ago, Knight was a top-5 high school senior, while Craft, the 26th-best PG recruit according to ESPNU, was seen as a solid piece in OSU's Jared Sullinger-led recruiting class. Both have been key cogs in their teams' success this year. Knight, named first-team all-SEC by the league's coaches, has led the Cats in points (17.4), assists (4.2) and minutes (35.7), and Craft has been the Buckeyes' best distributor (4.9 assists per game, including a career-high 15 on Sunday against George Mason) and its top perimeter defender. In fact, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Craft was the only unanimous pick on the Big Ten all-defensive team.

Like the rest of his Buckeye teammates, Craft is particularly good at creating turnovers without fouling. Ohio State leads the country in steal percentage, and Craft gets a steal on 4.0 percent of defensive possessions -- fourth-best among players in the Sweet 16 and 38th in the country. Thing is, Kentucky knows how to take care of the ball, turning it over on only 16.0 percent of offensive possessions, good for ninth nationally. And though Knight turns it over a bit more often (19.5 percent) than his teammates, he's an improving ballhandler who has coughed up the ball less than 18.2 percent of the time in each of his last four games -- solid, considering that his turnover percentage had tipped 30 percent in several games earlier this season.

Unlike last year's Kentucky team, which liked to get out on the break with John Wall and pound opponents inside with DeMarcus Cousins, this season the Wildcats have stuck more to the dribble-drive motion offense that John Calipari first popularized at Memphis. Knight headed to Lexington with a reputation as a better shooter than penetrator, mainly because his 6-3, 185-pound frame couldn't always handle contact in the lane. This year, he's delivered from behind the arc, hitting 38.4 percent of his 3s, and he's been particularly hard to handle when he shoots off of ball screens. (According to Synergy Sports Technology, he's scored 1.19 points per possession in those situations.) But Knight also has been an effective operator on isolation plays, which make up 17.6 percent of his offensive possessions. He's scoring 1.08 points per possession on iso plays, a number that jumps to 1.33 PPP when he's working on the right side of the court.

Craft rates as a very good ball-screen defender, though there were times this season -- notably, in the Buckeyes' Feb. 12 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers -- when the freshman struggled to get through picks and deny the long-range shot. He hasn't been as stingy on isolation plays, allowing his man to score 34.3 percent of the time (.728 points per possession). If Craft struggles, it's on spot-up plays in which he loses his man; opponents are scoring 50 percent of the time in catch-and-shoot situations, good for an eyebrow-raising 1.44 PPP.

Knight is shooting just a hair under 40 percent on spot-up, no-dribble jumpers this season, and Kentucky should push to get him some free looks early in the game. Should he start hitting from deep, Knight likely will find it easier to drive on Craft, be it on isolation plays or ball screens. And the more he can get into the lane against Buckeyes, the more he'll pull defenders away from skilled forward Terrence Jones (16.1 ppg) and 3-point bombers Doron Lamb (46.9 percent) and Darius Miller (44.6 percent).

For Kentucky to advance past the team picked to win in 25.9 percent of all Tournament Challenge brackets, Knight has to look more like the decisive, aggressive lead guard that he was against West Virginia -- and less like the tentative rookie who failed to score until canning the game-winner in the Princeton game. If Knight shoots 0-for-7 in the first 39 minutes against Craft and the Buckeyes, forget about any last-minute heroics: The Cats will be going home.

Ian Gordon covers college basketball for ESPN Insider. A former contributing editor at ESPN The Magazine, he is currently a San Francisco Bay Area-based freelance writer. He is a regular contributor to The Mag and Insider, writing mostly about college hoops and baseball. You can find his ESPN archives here, and follow him on Twitter here.


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