UK has finished the non-conference portion of their schedule and have their best start to the season in 40 years. They have won a variety of games: rivalry games, games decided in the final minute, games decided in the first minute, games they were down at halftime, games away from Rupp Arena, and games they needed some luck to win (Stanford). They have gotten better and better and one of the many exciting bits of the season is that as good as they have been there is still plenty to improve going forward.
That's what I want to discuss here today. I was watching the Purdue - West Virginia game last Friday and with Purdue well ahead of the soon-to-be-formerly-undefeated Mountaineers, Jay Bilas discussed the Boilermakers' prospects for the season and specifically their Final 4 chances. Bilas focused on team-specific issues that could potentially cost Purdue at some point in the season. He didn't mean things such as injuries - which can derail any team and can happen at any time to anyone - but rather issues that were unique to Purdue's team. He focused mostly on their lack of depth at point guard and identified that as a likely culprit should Purdue not fulfill their potential.
That got me thinking about UK and the things that could prevent the Cats from fulfilling their potential. To be clear, I'm not necessarily talking about weaknesses per se (altough that's a part of it), nor am I predicting that these things will definitely cost them a game or two in the future. I'm also not suggesting that these issues can't be overcome or are not already being improved. Rather I'm trying to identify ahead of time the parts of the Wildcat's game that we'll be talking about the most if and when they do lose some games.
More after the jump.
Point Guard depth: John Wall has been outstanding. He will be the best player on the floor in every game going forward and only matchups against Kansas and possibly Texas might alter that. But what happens if Wall isn't on the floor? We've already had two games where he had to sit out with cramps and another with foul trouble. That could happen again and it is absolutely critical that UK have someone who can keep the offense going when Wall is on the bench for an extended duration. Eric Bledsoe is the obvious answer: he definitely has the talent and is the heir apparent next year anyhow. That said, Bledsoe needs some game time during the season to develope the kind of chemistry with other players that a PG needs to direct the offense effectively.
Case in point: during the second half of the UL game Bledsoe drove to the paint, drew the defense to him, and pulled up to dump the ball off to Dodson who was moving towards the basket. Problem was, Dodson thought Bledsoe was going to shoot and was moving in for an offensive rebound and the pass sailed out of bounds. If it had been Wall instead of Bledsoe, I wonder if Dodson might have been more alert and prepared for a pass. Overall though, I thought Bledsoe was terrific when Wall went out with cramps, and I really liked how he attacked the basket against the zone leading to some layups and easy baskets for his teammates. I feel much better if Wall has to sit so long as Bledsoe is able to play.
Demarcus Cousins emotion: This has been beat to death already and I have nothing new to add. I'll just say that I'm not worried so much about Cousins getting out of control as much as I am about the *perception* that he gets out of control, particularly among referees. Many people have already commented about the danger of Cousins getting a reputation for physical play that could cause the refs to be quicker with the whistle than they would be for other players. Think Jamaal Magloire and the reputation he had for physical play that was greatly disproportionate to reality.
Demarcus Cousins part deux: The one thing I would like to see Big Cuz do more than anything else is start passing out of double- and triple-teams. It drives me bonkers when he tries to force up bad shots or dribble when he is surrounded by opposing players, especially in light of just how excellent UK's outside game is. Cousins could easily average 2-3 assists per game just from these situations alone if he would just pass the ball. The best time to shoot a 3 is off a pass from inside the paint and those opportunities present themselves *all the time* when Cousins is on the floor.
For someone who has UK games recorded, I would be really interested to know the results of those double- and triple-team plays. Specifically:
- How many times Cousins makes a basket on his first shot
- How many times Cousins misses, but either he or another UK players gets the offensive rebound and immediately puts it back for a made basket
- How many times the possession ends with a defensive rebound off a Cousins' miss or turnover
- How many times Cousins actually passes out of the double/triple team and the result of him doing so (made jump shot, turnover, defensive rebound, etc)
Three point defense: No surprise here. This has been counteracted somewhat by UK's own outstanding 3pt shooting, but I would rather see UK tighten the screws defensively to the point where their own shooting becomes a weapon rather than a means of staying even with the other team. Defensive effort is the most repeatable skill in basketball and there's no reason why the Wildcat's can't mount an excellent perimeter defense. They should play up closer to their man on the perimeter and if that opposing player thinks he can just drive past, then there are some tall men standing by the basket that would just love to introduce the basketball to the fans sitting in the 10th row.
Turnovers: Also not much of a surprise. If you look at teams that made the Final 4 over the last 6 years, they all tend to have around a 20% TO Rate or less. The thing is, UK is pretty decent at avoiding steals, right around the NCAA average so the improvement can come from their own decision making - avoiding traveling, throwing passes out of bounds, etc. These are factors directly under the control of the players so significant improvement is certainly possible.
Free Throws: They've been a bit better recently, but the UL game could have been over at half-time if guys could just shoot better. Cousins deserves a lot of credit for working on his shot and the improvement has been noticable. Wall and Bledsoe are both capable of hitting 80%+ and Darius Miller needs to find a way to get to the line more - he's hitting 90.9% but has only been to the line 11 times. I think Patterson is slowly pulling out of whatever the problem was. Back in early December he was sitting at 55% (20 percentage points under his career mark), but he's gotten that up to 60% (15 points off his career mark). I listened to him talk about it with Mike Pratt after the UL game when he talked about working on it and how he feels good about his form and release so maybe we'll continue to see him get back on track.
UK has shown they can hit free throws in the clutch, but the points count just as much in the first 5 minutes as they do in the last 5 and if they can hit them early then it won't be necessary to hit them late.
Those are the areas that I can see preventing the Wildcats from reaching their potential and costing them some victories. I don't believe they need to be good at everything I've listed however. This team has a lot of strengths and if the players can just get to the point where they are "average" in the above it will serve to really improve the team overall.
What say you? What areas will you be looking at and paying attention to during conference play? What are some things you have seen that haven't cost the Wildcats yet, but might sometime in the future?