Tonight, the Lafayette Leopards came into Rupp Arena and challenged the #3 Kentucky Wildcats to a game of basketball. What happened was predictable, as the Wildcats ran, shot, and steamrolled their way to a resounding victory.
A hearty thank you to the game Lafayette Leopards, who lost their leading scorer and best offensive player to a freak accident in the shoot-around prior to the game. Despite that bit of misfortune, the Leopards gave a good account of themselves. Unfortunately for Lafayette, they ran into a vastly more powerful, if young, Kentucky team.
This was a game of baby steps. Kentucky made many small steps in many small areas, but still failed to put forth the kind of effort that will curb John Calipari's dissatisfaction. Too many broken-off defensive plays, too many missed switches, too many times with 2 men covering one player, too many... mistakes.
Still, there were moments that made you go, "Wow! Did you see that??" For example:
These young guys are amazingly talented, and sometimes it shows in spades. There were times in this game where you knew the Wildcats weren't playing as a team, but it didn't matter. Their talent was so extreme that teamwork was less important than it might otherwise be. That will not be true for long.
This is perhaps the most intriguing team ever to come to Kentucky during the Age of Cal. Sometimes, I think they are the most talented ever to arrive, and then they promptly show me that talent is only part of the equation, and they are surely still missing the other parts. With that said, they are fun to watch, and even if that is not necessarily a good thing (there is much to be said for boring efficiency), at this point, it is what we have.
- Nerlens Noel was exactly what we need him to be. He created havoc with his size and quickness, scored inside, made a decent free throw percentage, and generally played a very good game. 15 points on 6-8 shooting, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, 4 assists and 1 block. Game ball.
- Kyle Wiltjer was much more aggressive in this game, and it showed in his numbers. Of course he made threes, because with a stroke like that, he is going to. But he also rebounded a little, had some assists, and generally played well. 23 points, 2 assists and 4 rebounds.
- Alex Poythress had a terrific game. 9-10 shooting for 22 points, 5 rebounds, a steal and a block. At times, Poythress was frighteningly dominant, giving a new meaning to "Beast mode."
- Archie Goodwin had a quiet game, relatively speaking, except for the aforementioned SportsCenter highlight. 13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists 1 steal and 1 block.
- Julius Mays probably deserves a part of the game ball. Even though he didn't score a lot, he had 10 assists, which is an astonishing number for a non-point guard. He also had 5 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals to go along with his double-digit assists.
- Willie Cauley-Stein was good, but he didn't quite play up to the standard he had been setting for himself up until these last two games. I can't be critical of 14 points on 6-9 shooting, but 4 rebounds was not what I was hoping for. Still, he was very good, so perhaps my concern is misplaced.
- Jarrod Polson was very good tonight, and even though his 7 points, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 rebounds are not as impressive as others, he gave the team quality minutes, and generally, the team ran much better with him in the game.
- Jon Hood played 12 minutes and got 2 rebounds, but he didn't really play that well. He looked a little uncomfortable, which I attribute to too little playing time. Hopefully, Calipari can get him more minutes in the next game, because he badly needs them.
- Twany Beckham played, and even scored a couple of points, but he looked very uncomfortable out there. I think that back problem is not really better.
This game was an incremental improvement in most ways for Kentucky. Yes, the 'Cats shot it really well from three, but honestly, that's not really the game this team wants to play. Wiltjer will make the open looks he gets, but it won't take long before opponents would rather leave a player like Goodwin all alone than give Wiltjer even a crack, so the Wildcats are going to have to learn how to get him shots. The did tonight, but that effort needs refinement and consistency.
Overall, I liked the big runs UK went on in this game. What I did not like was the defensive spacing, which was better than against Duke, but not by a lot. Also, the Wildcats had some effort breakdowns, particularly by Poythress, which Calipari demonstrated to him in an amusing and animated way.
Fear not, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation -- the 'Cats will get better. Not by leaps and bounds, perhaps, but slow and steady will get you there just as well as two steps forward and one step back. We'll need to be patient with this team.