I love this time of year. The leaves are changing, there is a crispness in the air. And Wildcats fans the world over lose sleep over ball movement and the fact that all the Big Blue players "suck."
It's never been any different, and anyone thinking that it will change now that the internet has taken the water cooler global is living in a fantasy world.
And that's fine. Call it the birthright of the Bluegass hoops fan. But this time, I will disagree with the main thrust of the TV remote-tossing, and here's why.
Defense, defense, defense
Despite all the visual evidence of offensive frustration, last year's debacle was ultimately a failure on defense. For Tubby Smith, whose offensive scheme has never been, shall we say, attractive, the saving grace has always been defensive intensity. You are always in a game, the theory goes, if you can stop the other team from scoring, even on nights when your shot isn't falling.
Ignoring the fact that those nights seem to come more often than anyone in Blue would hope for, the premise is basically true. And that's why, despite Wednesday's scuttling performance in attempting to score down the stretch in the second half, there were significant signs of progress from last season.
After trailing early, when Miami's spot-up shooters were slicing and dicing the Cats' D, Kentucky rallied to force a 31% mark from the visitors for the game, including 16% (4-for-25) in the pivotal second half. That shows not only improvement from the poor start, but major improvement from last season, when the numbers generally went up rather than down as the game progressed.
Overall, the Cats defenders clamped down to the tune of 25% (2-for-8) from three for Miami in the second 20 minutes after allowing 4 threes in the first frame. The Redhawks managed just 46 points on the night, which the Cats' matched only once all of last season, against Georgia State in one of the best games the team played all year defensively. And this Miami team is better than that Georgia State team was.
Unlike last season, this was not, I anticipate, the best game defensively this team can play. That is a good sign.
Focus, Danielsan, focus
The other big hangup for most diehards last year was the simple feeling that, in the past even when everything was going awry, Tubby's teams always had played with superior effort. That group, for many reasons we won't rehash, did not put forth game efforts each time out. And it showed, in losses that went from mild shutdowns to beatdowns of historic proportions by the time the final buzzer sounded (Kansas and IU, primarily).
Last night's win, on the other hand, while ugly and offensively challenged, was not a walk-through. The kids played hard, even the oft-maligned Randolph Morris and Ramel Bradley, whose occasionally lackadaisical demeanors have drawn Cats fans' ire from time to time.
Whether it was Perry Stevenson blocking sure-fire layups or senior Bobby Perry hitting the deck for loose balls, the effort and focus were there if the shooting eyes were not. And that's a big positive as the season moves forward.
As I noted below, while things were not all positive, I don't believe that the principal negatives from the game -- Bradley's turnovers, Morris' fouls and the lack of offensive movement -- will linger into Maui.
I am a big fan of the wuick turnaround to Friday's game, as the players get to erase the negatives from Wednesday's win immediately rather than having to wait for a week to get it out of their system.
That doesn't mean Friday's game won't potentially see new problems, maybe even a defensive relapse or two. But this is a team of talented players, many of whom are either playing increased minutes from last season (Bradley, especially) or are playing college ball for the first time (Derrick Jasper). They will need time to coalesce.
So, Big Blue Nation, don't panic yet. Be concerned, look away in digust, scream obscenities ... it's your right. But I advise against tossing this team to the curb too soon, because there were several promising signs in the win over Miami. And after last year, promising is a huge win for the fans.