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In win, John Calipari finds a way to cool Marshall Henderson, NCAA's Vlad Guerrero

No. 18 Kentucky found its response Tuesday to Marshall Henderson: It, in its own way, turned his approach around on him. Henderson is not one afraid to throw anything toward the basket, so the Wildcats reciprocated and threw everything back at him.
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It worked, ultimately, because Kentucky won 80-64. Henderson had 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting (including 4-of-12 3-point shooting), so it’s hard to say whether the Wildcats’ defense really bothered college basketball’s Vladimir Guerrero. Maybe Mark Reynolds is another appropriate analogue for those hip to the baseball comparison. If you are not, the point is: Reynolds is known for trying to hit nothing but home runs, and he has hit plenty; he also strikes out a whole lot and has always kept batting averages low because he make so many outs striking out or flying out on balls that don’t clear the fence. Of Henderson’s 297 field-goal attempts so far in his senior season, 75.4 percent have been from deep. His career rate at Ole Miss is 73 percent. He’s a career 35.4-percent 3-point shooter, which isn’t great, but a lot of shots fall when you take a lot.


John Calipari threw everything back at Marshall Henderson on Tuesday, and it worked. (File photo by Jon Hale)

John Calipari threw everything back at Marshall Henderson on Tuesday, and it worked. (File photo by Jon Hale)

But the Guerrero comparison rings true, too, and maybe truer, because Henderson doesn’t need an open look to pull the trigger and often doesn’t spend much time seeking one. Guerrero swung all the time at terrible pitches at which one should never swing, and he often coaxed desirable results out of those swings (like, for instance, when he hit his first career home run off Mark Wohlers and left the Atlanta Braves announcers speechless). He wasn’t even above swinging at a pitch that had bounced in front of home plate*, and Henderson won’t write off a shot simply because he’s falling backward on his off-foot and a defender has his hand in his face. Defense is relative when playing against Henderson. As a pitcher had to occasionally tip his cap to Guerrero, so must a defender tip his …


Henderson’s so indiscriminate to the defense being paid to him that one seemingly normal second-half sequence was jarring. Ole Miss had just inbounded the ball under its own basket, and a pass from the lane went out to the left elbow behind the 3-point line. Henderson was unguarded, and he stepped in to the pass, received it, shot it up and watched it fall perfectly through the net in one motion. Henderson was not struggling around a defender or hitting the deck or distorting the space around him to wiggle a shot out of his hand and toward the basket. It was the most open he was all night, which is to say he was open at all. It was weird.


So how does a coach battle that, knowing his defense gave up 33 points to one guard, and 28 points to another guard, in the last game his team played? He threw everything he had at Henderson.


Not including mid-possession switches off screens, Kentucky had six different players guarding Henderson on Tuesday: Aaron Harrison, James Young, Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress, Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein. Those first three in the set are guards, or guard-types, anyway; the other three are, according to this author’s amateur basketball analysis, not. Poythress is 6-8, Randle is 6-9, and Cauley-Stein is seven feet tall.


Cauley-Stein drew the assignment a handful of possessions Tuesday, also guarding Ole Miss guard Jarvis Summers a few times down, and he proved plenty capable. Cauley-Stein said the key for him in those matchups is to keep his hips low—lower than the hips of who he’s guarding—and keep his feet moving. Cauley-Stein, even at his height, is quick enough and disciplined enough to stay home on guards. He might even be one of Kentucky’s best perimeter defenders, small sample size be damned.


Because of how active Henderson is moving away from the ball, around all kinds of screens that Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy draws up to put Henderson in the best position possible for the shots he will invariably take, a Kentucky defender had to switch off his defender at any given time to pick him up. At times, match-up problems as extreme as Henderson vs. 7-foot center Dakari Johnson—a much different kind of 7-footer than Cauley-Stein—were on the floor. In fact, that happened briefly on the first possession of the game. Henderson saw Johnson was on him and passed to 6-9 Sebastian Saiz, Johnson’s man, for a bucket over Julius Randle, who had just switched off Henderson.


It’s difficult to say how much of an effect the confusion from possession to possession had on Henderson, because he was going to shoot anyway, and given career and season percentages, something close to the average amount went in Tuesday. But of his 16 points in the game, he only made baskets on consecutive possessions once, a first-half sequence in which he made back-to-back threes. On both shots, Young was the primary defender, and Randle was scrambling over to help off a screen right as Henderson fired.


On the next possession, Young had been reassigned. Polson was guarding Henderson, and Henderson got one of his most wide-open looks of the night. From 24 feet, he threw an airball.


Guerrero was endlessly fun to watch because he was really good at hitting bad pitches, and he was still good at hitting good pitches that had no business being hit. Henderson is fun in the same inevitable way: He piles field-goal attempts as matters of fact and not circumstance. Guerrero wasn’t perfect, though. You had a much better chance of getting a swing-and-miss if you pitched him down and away. Calipari found Henderson’s down and away, and he went for it.


*The first YouTube auto-suggest result when given the phrase “Vladimir Guerrero” is “Vladimir Guerrero hits ball off ground.”  Here is a video of him doing just that.

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