Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Critiquing the 'Cats

Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been Kentucky's best player the last two games.

With the Wildcats taking final exams this week, and with no games taking place, I thought it was time to take a look at how the youthful 'Cats have performed so far this season, and what each player needs to improve on. Considering this Kentucky squad is saddled with great expectations, expectations beyond a "mere" Final Four appearance, this collection of Wildcats have the weight of the Commonwealth on their substantial shoulders. And with the 'Cats being a freshman-dominated group once again, it is certainly reasonable to expect uneven play at this juncture of the season, but growth and continuing maturity are the goals.

Winning in March is all about getting better in December, January, and February. So with an eye toward the future, and in terms of performance, let's take a look at where the players are now, and where they need to be in order for the season to end with a win.

This examination of the 'Cats will include player statistics from what I deem to be the five toughest opponents UK has faced so far -- Kansas, Old Dominion, St. John's, North Carolina, and Indiana -- as well as the total season stats for each player. You, the reader, can then determine if players are stat-stuffing against the bottom of the food chain, or performing well against the best the schedule has to offer -- As an aside: selecting St. John's over Penn State as one of the five best teams UK has played this season was a tossup, in my mind. I went with the Red Storm because they are a very young, but athletic and skilled ball-club, and should be a tough out as the season progresses.

After the stats, I offer my critical overview of each player. Let's start with one of UK's two seniors:

Darius Miller

For the year, Miller is averaging 8.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 turnovers, and .9 steals per game. He is shooting 46.3% from the field, 23.1% from the 3-point line, and 80.0% from the free throw line in 24.4 minutes of action.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Miller is averaging 9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 tpg, and .4 spg. Miller is shooting 46.2% from the floor (18-39), 12.5% from long-range (2-16), and 81.8% from the charity stripe (9-11) in 24.8 mpg.

Before I give my thoughts on Miller's performance, let me first do this -- Coming into this season, Miller had started a total of 71 games in his three-year UK career. This season, he has started only a single contest, but he hasn't complained or pouted about losing his starting gig, rather, he's been the consummate teammate, saying all he's interested in is winning a championship. For that Miller deserves an atta boy from his fellow Wildcats and Wildcat fans.

When the conversation turns to scoring the basketball, the knock on Miller has always been his consistency. While I would like to see Miller take more shots (in UK's five toughest games, he's averaging 7.8 shots per contest), especially considering he's connecting on 69.6% of his two-point attempts in UK's five toughest games, what he is consistently doing on the floor is playing hard on the defensive end. With Miller it's not about lackadaisical play, it's about him needing to be more assertive, as he was toward the end of last year when he won the SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player award. With that in mind, the troubling drop-off in Miller's 3-point accuracy from last year (44.3%) to this year (23.1%) is hard to diagnosis. I haven't noticed anything in his shot in need of fixing, other than the ball needs to go in the basket at a higher rate than 23.1% of the time.

Speaking of Miller becoming more assertive, last Saturday against IU -- with Terrence Jones struggling and Anthony Davis in foul trouble -- would have been the perfect time for Miller to take control, take more shots, and become more of an offensive presence. For a 90-second stretch midway through the second half he did just that, but then faded into the offensive end background. He simply has to recognize when the 'Cats need his offense, and adjust accordingly.

Last season the 'Cats hit their stride when the upperclassmen, including Miller, took a larger role on both ends of the floor, and the same formula may be needed this season if the 'Cats hope to seriously challenge for the title.

Terrence Jones

For the year, Jones is averaging 13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 1.7 assists, and 2.1 turnovers per game. He is shooting 50.0% from the floor, 50.0% from the 3-point line, and 68.3% from the free throw line in 30.3 minutes per game.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Jones is averaging 13.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.2 bpg, .8 apg, and 2.8 tpg. Jones is making 46.9% of shots (23-49), 33.3% from beyond the arc (3-9), and 69.6% from the charity stripe (16-23) in 33.0 mpg.

Over the first nine games of the season, Jones has been as up-and-down as any UK player in recent memory. After scoring 14 first half points against UNC, in the second half of that one-point contest, Jones went 0-3 from the field (all 3-point tries) and scoreless, but he did contribute in other areas, grabbing four boards and blocking three shots. Then, after his second half offensive struggles against the Heels, he had the worst game of his entire life versus IU, snagging only one rebound and committing six turnovers in 28 minutes. Against St. John's, though, Jones was terrific, scoring 26-points and pulling down nine rebounds.

Jones is a great player. We know this. What type of problem is keeping him from being more consistent this year? I don't know, so I will not venture a guess, but, I will put this thought out there -- John Calipari told Jones that if he came back for his sophomore year, to come back and be great, that's the only way him coming back to campus would be a good decision. With the SEC schedule quickly approaching, now Terrence, is the time to be great.

Doron Lamb

For the year, Lamb is averaging 14.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.0 turnovers per game. He is shooting 45.7% from the floor, 51.4% from the 3-point line, and 82.1% from the free throw line in 31.0 minutes per game.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Lamb is averaging 14.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, and 1.4 tpg. The Brooklyn native is shooting 44.2% from the field (23-52), 57.9% from long-range (11-19), and 70.8% from the charity stripe (17-24) in 34.6 mpg.

I have two issues with Lamb's game, 1) he doesn't shoot enough, and 2) at times he still relaxes on the defensive end.

Let's take a look at Lamb's shooting -- Against IU, a tremendous 3-point shooting team, Lamb took exactly three long-range shots ... three! Not surprisingly, he made two. Lamb needs to demand the ball, and the half-court offense needs to provide more open-look ops for the sharpest of the sharp shooters, especially when opponents play UK in man-to-man defense as IU did Saturday. If Kentucky is to reach its potential, Lamb and his right arm will be a big reason why, and him taking an average of 3.8 3-point tries per game -- which is the number of 3s Lamb averaged taking against UK's five toughest opponents -- isn't going to be enough.

Defensively, Lamb possesses all the tools to be a top notch, lock-down defender. He has quick feet, he has quick hands, and he has good size for a "2," but he isn't always focused on the defensive end of the floor. For example, at times he's slow to give help off his man, and that hesitation can be costly, and again, off the perimeter screen, Lamb has to be quicker to step to the shooter.

Calipari's teams, perhaps this team more-so than any other Cal squad, are reliant on its defense to produce points. This Kentucky team is full of finishers, and when they get out on the floor and push the ball, there aren't many teams capable of keeping up. But it all starts with deflections, blocks, back tips, steals, winning every 50-50 ball, and forcing the opponent out of its comfort zone. In other words, defense, it all starts with defense, and the sooner Lamb and company take a page out of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's book on the advantages of playing frenetic, aggressive defense, they will never reach their promise.

Actually, Cal' s troops might want to wander over to Memorial Coliseum and watch the UK Hoops team embarrass, then destroy their opponents with suffocating, hide-the-children defense. It's truly awesome to watch.

Anthony Davis

For the year, Davis is averaging 11.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. The big fella is making 67.7% of his shots from the field, and 52.6% of his free throws in 27.1 minutes of action.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Davis is averaging 10.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.2 bpg, and 2.2 spg. Davis is making 64.7% of his shots from the floor (22-34), and 47.4% of his free throws (9-19) in 28.6 mpg.

Frankly, I have no real criticism of Davis. He's simply been as good, if not better than advertised. His offensive game is miles ahead of where it was in high school last year, leaving one to wonder just how good will Davis be in three months? Defensively, when he learns what he should block and when he should back-off, he'll be brilliant.

Foul trouble has plagued Davis in a few games, most notably against IU, but the fouls he was called for in Bloomington were "road fouls," something he'll learn and adjust to along the way.

I think what surprises most people about Davis is his sheer athleticism for a man 6'10." He glides like Ron Mercer down the floor, and when around the rim ... well, pity the rim. Plus, and it's a big plus, Davis has mastered a skill few big men have, and that is keeping the blocked shot in play, instead of swatting the ball into the third row. This creates fast-break scoring opportunities for the 'Cats, making Davis' defensive tenacity all the more valuable.

(And oh by the way, Davis' shot blocking pace? If the 'Cats play 30 games, and at his present pace, Davis will block 123 shots, pulverizing the UK single season blocked shot record of 83 shared by Melvin Turpin and Andre Riddick).

Even Davis' footwork is polished (along with timing and stupid long arms, great footwork is what allows Davis to be such a great shot blocker), something made more remarkable by the fact that he's only been 6'10" for 18 months or so. This my friends, is why he will be the overwhelming No. 1 selection in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

For the year, MKG is averaging 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.3 assists, 2.6 turnovers, and 1.2 blocks per game. Kidd-Gilchrist is shooting 51.9% from the field, 35.7% from the 3-point line, and 74.3% from the charity stripe in 30.3 minutes per game.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, MKG is averaging 13.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.2 spg, 1.8 apg, 3.6 tpg, and 1.2 bpg. He is shooting 50.9% from the floor (26-51), 42.9% from long-range (3-7), and 62.5% from the line (10-16) in 32.4 mpg.

UK's best player over the last two games -- he averaged 17.5 points and 10 boards on 15-of-22 shooting against UNC and IU -- MKG seems to be improving with each passing game. The pre-UK press clippings told us Kidd-Gilchrist had a non-stop motor, and was good going to the basket. Emphatic check and check.

MKG has shown the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, and his decidedly odd release hasn't precluded him from being a perimeter threat. Additionally, he's grabbed at least nine rebounds in four of UK's five toughest games. Obviously, the spotlight doesn't seem to faze this young man, and as long as he continues to set the defensive tone for the 'Cats the Kentucky offense should reap the benefits, rendering MKG and his full-time intensity invaluable to the success of this team.

Marquis Teague

For the year, Teague is averaging 10.8 points, 4.2 assists, 2.9 turnovers, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. He is shooting 45.8% from the floor, 35.0% from beyond the arc, and 58.3% from the free throw line in 30.2 minutes of action.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, UK's point guard is averaging 9.0 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.6 tpg, 2.4 rpg, and 1.0 spg. Teague is shooting 37.5% from the floor (18-48), 20.0% from long-range (2-10), and 46.7% from the line (7-15) in 31.4 mpg.

A narrower view of Teague's numbers shows us that over UK's last three games he has dished out 14 assists and turned the ball over six times, an outstanding 2.3-1 ratio. Although he's not shooting the ball well on the season, Teague has made some clutch baskets for the 'Cats this year, particularly in the second half of the Indiana game. Sure, his shot needs work, but his point guard decision-making is on the improve, and there is no denying he can take his man off the dribble.

Everything the 'Cats do begins with Teague -- He runs the point, so he's responsible for getting UK into their half-court offense (something he struggled with in the first half in Bloomington); he's defending the point, so he's responsible for disrupting the opponent's quarterback; he leads the Wildcat break, so he's responsible for getting the ball into the hands of the teammate most likely to score. Teague's plate is bountiful with responsibilities, and so far, he's coming up roses when it matters most. Not bad for a freshman.

As the season progresses, so goes Teague will become so goes the 'Cats. He's the head of the snake, the body will do as he dictates.

Kyle Wiltjer

For the year, Wiltjer is averaging 5.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. He's shooting 43.5% from the floor, 26.7% from beyond the arc, and 77.8% from the free throw line in 13.6 minutes per game.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Wiltjer is averaging 1.4 ppg and 1.6 rpg. He's shooting 30.0% from the field (3-10), 25.0% from long-range (1-4), and he's 0-1 from the line in 7.6 mpg.

A good shooter struggling with diminished minutes due to defensive deficiencies, Wiltjer seems to be a very unsure young man at the moment. He played hesitantly against both UNC and IU, which cost him minutes in both games.

Wiltjer is a great example of how most non-ultra elite players acclimate to collegiate basketball at the highest level. Most (normal) players have holes in their games when they arrive from high school, and when one is on a team full of great athletes who are also great basketball players, playing time will be scant until the learning curve is captured.

For Wiltjer, it's all about defense. He might be a step slow in his reaction time, something exploited by a few big men opponents this season, but learning to anticipate and learning to guard by feel by bodying the opposition is something that will eventually enable him to competently defend his position.

UK fans have become accustomed to Cal bringing in ready-to-start-freshmen, and yes, Wiltjer has had a couple of nice games, but against the top college talent he's struggled. The light will come on, though, he'll learn his defensive lessons, he'll reclaim his confidence, and Wiltjer will do what he was brought here to do, score points in a variety of way.

Eloy Vargas

For the year, Vargas is averaging 1.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. The senior is shooting 46.7% from the field and 42.9% from the free throw line in 8.4 minutes per game.

Against UK's five toughest opponents, Vargas is averaging 1.4 ppg and 2.4 rpg. He's shooting 33.3% from the field and 50.0% from the line in 6.8 mpg.

My judgment of Vargas is based on two stats, 1) rebounds and 2) turnovers -- is he doing his job and is he taking care of the ball? That's all I need to know, because rebounding and NOT hurting the team are his primary jobs when on the court. And so far, similar to how he played the second half of last season, he's getting the job done (he even scored a big basket against IU on a nice put-back). He's grabbing rebounds, and not having the ball bullied from his grasp (thank you off-season workouts), and he has committed nary a turnover in 76 minutes of play.

Something I don't want us to forget -- Vargas doesn't get much credit for being such a good sport. He was, after all, an elite high school player, recruited by many high DI schools, but at UK he's relegated to playing sub-10 minutes per game. To his great credit he's uttered not a single regret or woe-is-me. He just continues to get better, and really, what more can one ask for.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

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