Kentucky Wildcats, 72, Maryland Terrapins, 69:  Postmortem

Willie Cauley-Stein had a great first half tonight. - Jason Szenes

In a tale of two halves, the Kentucky Wildcats narrowly defeat the Maryland Terrapins, 72-69 in Brooklyn's brand-new Barclays Center.

Well, all I can say about that game is that it was very exciting. It was poorly played by both teams, there were lots of wild shots that didn't hit anything but the floor of the arena, wild charges into other players, wild drives that were amazing only for their senseless craziness. Did I mention there was a lot of wild stuff?

Congratulations to the Maryland Terrapins for a very good effort. After going down by 15 in the first half, the Terrapins came all the way back to take the lead, and but for a blown layup, could easily have gained enough momentum to win the game. There is no doubt that they are very much improved over last year, and like Kentucky, they will only get better with age. They didn't play well, but they played very hard. That was nearly enough.

As for Kentucky, they played the first half like a team of destiny, and the second half like a team from Mars seeing a basketball for the first time. It was a disturbing contrast.

The one overarching problem for Kentucky was that they were badly manhandled inside by the beefier Terrapins. Even Alex Len, who is a slender player and by no means massive, easily out-muscled and dominated the Wildcats in the painted area. That is a big, fat red flag for the rest of the season, and if Kentucky cannot become stronger in the post, the 'Cats are going to lose games that they should not lose. But not this one. Not this time.

Superlatives:

  • Kyle Wiltjer had 19 points and 6 rebounds to lead Kentucky. He played exactly the kind of game he needs to play in every respect but one -- he must rebound better. Defensively, he is never going to be great, but he was adequate tonight.

    Jarrod Polson, in a word, was simply amazing. He played like he had been starting for the Wildcats for two years at the point. He was confident, he played within himself, took advantage of opportunities, and played very good defense, much better than I expected. 10 points, 3 assists.

    These two men may be the unlikeliest and oddest couple ever to share the game ball at Kentucky in the last four years. But tonight, they do.
  • Archie Goodwin had a very good game. He played out of control at times, and made some freshman mistakes, but I'll take this for a first performance under pressure. 16 points, 2 assists, 3 turnovers.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein was extraordinary in the first half, very much ordinary in the second. But he continues to show a polished offensive game, a strong defensive presence, and great hustle. 8 points, 6 rebounds 4 blocks.
  • Julius Mays was adequate. He played within himself, made few mistakes, and did a good job of keeping the team calm. What he did not do well was what he is supposed to do well -- shoot the basketball. 7 points on 3 of 10 shooting, 2 steals.
  • Nerlens Noel was barely adequate. He had a team high 9 rebounds, but he got buried under the basket literally dozens of times, and allowed Alex Len to completely dominate him in every measurable way. He made two critical plays at the end of the game that were arguably responsible for preserving the victory -- a poke-away under the basket that led to foul shots, and a hustle play on an offensive rebound that led to foul shots. 4 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 blocks.

Not so great

  • Ryan Harrow. When you are taken out in favor of a former walk-on, even a walk on that has rightfully earned a scholarship and is much better than expected, that's all you need to know. Harrow lacks confidence, does not communicate with his teammates, and plays as though he's scared to be out there. If he doesn't develop some confidence, he'd better get used to the bench. Harrow was 0-4 with 2 assists.
  • Alex Poythress. Alex makes it here because he clearly hasn't learned how to play this game at the college level. Alex has mad skills, and we saw them once or twice, but mostly we saw players blow by him on the way to the rim. He did have 8 rebounds and 8 points, but he didn't play a good game.

Overall, what we saw here is exactly what we expected to see -- a lot of slop, a lot of careless turnovers, a lot of bad defense. We also saw, in stretches, how very good this team can be -- speed in transition, strong perimeter defense, and shot blocking. But unfortunately, there was just as much bad as there was good, and that allowed the Terps a chance to steal the game from the Wildcats. But to be fair, Kentucky rose up in the end, made big free throws, and got the victory. At the end of the season, this will look like a very nice victory, and will help our RPI. I expect Maryland to be a very dangerous team in the ACC.

Finally, we have precious little time to get better before facing the much better and more dangerous Duke Blue Devils team in Atlanta. Make no mistake, if we play this poorly against them, they will defeat us easily. They are more talented than the Terrapins, and more experienced. But we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

For now, it's victory #1 of the new season, and how sweet it is! Go, 'Cats!

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