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Can Kentucky Advance in a Brawl with Kansas State?

Kentucky’s offense thrived in the SEC tournament when it played free, driving into the lane and dishing out to either an open shooter or another driver to re-iniate the process until one thing or another gave. The Wildcats ran into trouble Sunday when Florida locked down the lane so much so that John Calipari went more toward half-court sets since drives weren’t opening up. The Wildcats got back in the game because it forced itself into the lane and made things happen from there.

In that regard, the Wildcats may struggle in Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against No. 9 Kansas State.

Kansas State has a physical defense that defends extremely well on the perimeter—its 29.4 three-point defense percent is sixth in Division I—and doesn’t allow much in the half-court because it does so well keeping teams from hitting threes. Kansas State’s defensive effective field-goal percentage this season is 45.4, 32nd in the country.

Head coach Bruce Weber controls games with his defense, because he has no choice with a fairly nondescript offense. The Wildcats exert their energy on defense, and they do it by bodying up and bullying their way to won possessions.

Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein will have big height advantages in the post, but Johnson’s style may be a more appropriate matchup with Kansas State center Thomas Gipson, who is 6-7 and 265 pounds. It will be up to Kentucky’s two centers—perhaps even playing at the same time, a lineup that Calipari rode to score 14 unanswered points to get back in the game against Florida on Sunday—to keep Gipson accounted for both for low-post offense and to free up Andrew Harrison and other drivers.

Kentucky was at its best Sunday when it engaged Florida in a brawl instead of trying to shoot over or around, and it will likely face a similar test against Kansas State. Teams that have succeeded against Kansas State in the Big 12 typically profile as physical, athletic teams—Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma—that use drivers to create offense to some extent. It’s a tailored matchup to test whether Calipari’s offensive tweak—really, just to play more on offense like the Wildcats did in his first year in Lexington, the dribble-drive offense—can thrive against a defense designed to protect shooters from getting open.

Written by James Pennington of KY Forward whose coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.