Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: The 'Cats' Meow?

"... I'm happy with how we're playing. To go on the road (at Vanderbilt) and show the kind of poise we showed, down four with a couple of minutes to go. To play Florida, who is at the time playing everybody. To do the things that we've done this year with three freshmen starting, a freshman off the bench, and two sophomores and then Darius (Miller). I guess we could be more perfect, but the reality is, I'm happy with how we're playing but I'm not satisfied. I want us to improve on that."

Kentucky head coach John Calipari

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, maybe not Christmas, but it's beginning to feel a lot like 1978 (for readers in the 40-plus age range), or even 1996 (for the younger set). With their latest conquest, a 69-63 statement win at Vanderbilt, the 2012 'Cats find themselves with a death grip on the overall No. 1 NCAA tourney seed, and are clearly playing like the nation's top team. The matter, especially over the last six games, isn't whether UK will win or not, it's by how wide of a margin will the 'Cats prevail? Bravado? Perhaps, but long experience tells me this Kentucky team is on to something, and the eyeball test tells me and many others that this Kentucky team is on a collision course with New Orleans, site of the the 2012 Final Four.

With John Calipari having two years worth of experience coaching young, inexperienced, freshman dominated teams, the UK head man seems to have locked-in on how to best mature his squad to the point of (at least) looking unbeatable. After all, just as his team is, Cal is learning as he goes. For no magic formula exists for making a very good, freshman dominated squad, meld into a great team. There is no handbook. No one to call for counsel. It's a learn as one goes deal, and Calipari is on the verge of mastering what many thought to be impossible -- leading a roster sated with rookies (and second year players) to a national title.

Over the Wildcats' last six games, they appear to be playing their best basketball of the season, dominating opponents at home (Tennessee, Florida), beating quality teams on the road (Vanderbilt), and dusting teams lacking in top 20 talent (Georgia, LSU, South Carolina). Kentucky has won going away, Kentucky has come back late to win, and Kentucky has won a few contests as soon as its over-sized roster stepped off the bus.

Let's take a look at how the 'Cats have made the journey from one of three or four of the best college basketball teams in the land, to the team to beat.

Kentucky's six game -- and counting -- coming-out party

Anthony the Great

Just as it has over the entire season, Kentucky is winning lately with freshman big man Anthony Davis constantly improving his game (and gaudy statistics seen below) as he dominates the middle on both ends of the floor. Davis, in a tight battle with Kansas forward Thomas Robinson for National Player of the Year, has, over the last six games, blocked 5.7 shots per game, an improvement on his 4.7 blocks per game through the first 20 contests of the year. Davis, with his record-setting shot blocking ability, is responsible for innumerable UK fast breaks, which just begins to measure his worth to this team.

For Davis is also shooting the ball more accurately, converting on 36-of-50 field goal attempts for an enviable 72.0% field goal accuracy, compared to his 63.0% field goal shooting through UK's first 20 games. The result, Davis is scoring more. Through the first 20 games of the year, Davis averaged 13.7 points per game, over the last six contests Davis checks in at 15.2 points per contest. He has scored in double-figures in five straight games, and is averaging 17.4 points in those five contests.

But stats tell only a small percentage of the effect Davis has on an opponent. Most significantly, Davis singlehandedly alters the game-plan of those who aspire to bring down the 'Cats: Drive the lane? Nope, Davis will swat or alter any shot within his exceedingly large zip code. Drive and dish? Nope. Davis will jump in the passing lane and pilfer the intended assist (the big fella is averaging 1.5 steals per game). Step out and take a 3-point shot? Nope. Davis has swatted 10 intended long-range bombs, a number difficult to grasp. Take the game straight to the big man? Nope. Davis possesses the uncanny ability to block shots, steal passes, and defend with vigor without fouling. Defend Kentucky with a 2-3 zone? Nope. The 'Cats will happily lob over the zone, giving Davis the chance to display all the various dunks in his repertoire.

Simply put, Davis' presence on the floor causes the opponent to pause and think instead of reacting instinctively, and players who wield that type of power do not come along very often.

The shooter and a senior

Joining the six game Wildcat hit parade is superb shooting guard Doron Lamb. Always a solid-to-spectacular 3-point shooter, Lamb has lately taken his game to another level.

Offensively, over the last six games, Lamb has made an even 52.0% of his shots from beyond the arc (26-of-50), an improvement on the already outstanding 46.8% long-range accuracy he sported though UK's first 20 games. Lamb, a shaky-at-best ball handler last season, averaged only 1.1 turnovers per game in UK's first 20 contests, and has committed only five miscues in the last six games (.8 pg).

The 'Cats, who have struggled from beyond the arc in several games this year, rely on Lamb to be their steady hand from distance. Lamb knows it, and he's responding with great shot selection, and when a player of his caliber is taking good shots, a very high percentage of the time the ball finds nylon.

Lamb's (sometimes) perimeter running mate, senior Darius Miller, is also picking-up his offensive efficiency by nailing 10-of-22 three-point shots over the last six games (45.5%). Miller, who has also come through for the 'Cats in the clutch -- making 4-of-4 free throws inside the final minute, sealing UK's win against Alabama, and scoring five straight points against Florida in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the second half, widening UK's lead to 46-30 -- does so many things that don't show up on ESPN or in the box score. Whether it be a strong block-out clearing the way for a Terrence Jones rebound, or setting an impenetrable screen, freeing up Lamb for an open trey, or getting in the passing lanes, creating steal opportunities with deflections, Miller is in the middle of the action when the game is on the line.

I expect no less from UK's most selfless player.

Teague's time

Perhaps having the most profound impact on UK's six game improvement-fest, though, is point guard Marquis Teague. The once shaky freshman has evolved into the type of point guard Cal pines for: a pass first, score when he must team leader.

Check this out: through UK's first 20 games, Teague recorded 86 assists (4.3 pg) and 63 turnovers (3.2 pg), good for a 1.4-1 assist/turnover ratio. Not bad, but not great either, and on a team with finishers at every position, improvement from UK's rookie point was necessary for this team to fulfill its substantial potential.

Just in time, and on cue -- over the last six contests Teague has polished his game to the tune of 36 assists (6.0 pg) versus only 11 turnovers (1.8 pg), good for a 3.3-1 assist to turnover ratio. As Cal is wont to say, WOW!

Teague, along with becoming an credible ball distributor, is now taking fewer shots. Through UK's first 20 games, he took an average of 9.1 shots per contest, in the last six games he's taken an average of 6.8 shots. In addition, in UK's first 20 games Teague took double-digit shots nine times, but only once in the last six contests has he attempted more than nine shots.

Teague has also improved at the free throw line after starting the season making only 68.9% from the stripe. In the last six games, Teague has connected on 72.7% of his charity tosses, rendering him no longer a liability in late-game scenarios.

The game for Teague has slowed down. He no longer ponders, he no longer jockeys for his shot, he just does ... does what Cal is asking of him, which is to run the offense, get the shooters open shots via smart ball movement, run the break from the middle, always looking for mismatches, and make life miserable for the opposing point.

Teague has grown from being the most doubted 'Cat, to a player capable of leading his team to the Big Easy and beyond.

The rest of the wrecking crew

The other members of Kentucky's roster have played a large role in the Wildcats' late-season surge -- Terrence Jones has scored in double-figures in 10 of the last 12 games, and is averaging 12.8 points per game in the last six contests. Jones' field goal percentage, which has always hung in the mid-to-high 40% range, has elevated to 51.9% (28-54) over the last six games, mostly due to better shot selection and increased paint points. Defensively, Jones is often overshadowed by the ever-looming Anthony Davis, but Jones is having a fine year on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 1.9 blocks per game, and over his last six games, 1.5 steals.

Making Jones more dangerous is the fact that he can be terror on the boards, snatching every available rebound (not attached to Davis), and scoring easily with put-backs. Consistency is his only issue at the moment, but over his last ten starts Jones seems focused and intent, and when he plays with the passion we've recently seen, the 'Cats are nearly impossible to beat.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, although tenacious on defense, has struggled on the offensive end during UK's six game streak, making only 18-of-47 shots (38.3%), resulting in a 9.2 scoring average (down from 13.2 through the first 20 games). MKG is making up for his point production drop-off, though, by improving his rebounding average from 7.5 rebounds to 8.7 boards per game over the last six contests. He has also been more accurate from the line, connecting on 79.2% of his tries (19-24), nearly four full percentage points higher than his average for the first 20 games.

Like Miller, MKG does so many things on floor for the 'Cats ... stats just don't do him justice. He's a game-changing defender, who makes life hellishly difficult for anyone unlucky enough to find him in their grill, and he sets the effort standard for his teammates to follow. A standard long on hustle, grit, and dogged determination.

Don't believe me? Ask him, he'll tell you, "I'm a competitor." And what do competitors do? Compete.

Finally, we come to freshman Kyle Wiltjer. Over the span of UK's last six games, Wiltjer has seen his minutes stabilize (he's averaging 12.8 mpg), and his 3-point shooting improve to 46.2% (6-13), up considerably from the 35.5% he shot through the first 20 games (11-31). He's playing with more confidence, obviously less hesitant to pull the trigger. His defense still isn't great, but it is improving, and teams are no longer going directly at him every time down the floor. That's progress sports fans.

Where it all starts: The dentyne defense

Over the last six games, Kentucky's already stout defense has become even tougher to operate against, holding opponents to a paltry 51.8 points per game, and allowing more than 52 points only twice. In three of those games UK allowed 19 made shots or less.

In another example of the commitment the Wildcats have for playing defense, Saturday against the Commodores, on their funky home floor, UK allowed 23 points to the 'Dores in the first half. The last 10 minutes of the second half, the 'Cats clamped down, allowing the 'Dores to score only 10 points. UK, in those combined 30 minutes of action, allowed Vandy to score 33 points, this for a squad which averages 74.9 points per game on the year.

Kentucky's defense has simply been outstanding on the year, and outrageous over the last six games. The 'Cats have become adept at taking the opposition out of their comfort zone, forcing penetrators away from the basket, and closing on shooters with speed and length. Although not terrific at pilfering, the 'Cats do disrupt the passing lanes, making teams either (over) work for the play they want to run, or making them go to places on the floor they don't want to go.

In other words, creating havoc.

The answer

Does all this, and John Calipari's expressed expectation of improvement mean that Kentucky is going to hang banner No. 8 this spring? Well, the first thing that must be remembered when assessing championship chances, is that there are many things that can go wrong which are beyond the control of anyone, injuries being the first and foremost of those. Running into "referees" Karl Hess, Tony Greene, or Ted Valentine could also spell trouble for the 'Cats, but barring something catastrophic, this team has the look of a champion.

UK's versatility, length, athleticism, and defensive tenacity are enough reason to have confidence in predicting greatness for this group, but the way they play as a team, as a unit, is perhaps even more impressive then their skill level. Is that enough to overcome the likes of Syracuse, Ohio St., Duke and others? March Madness awaits and with it the answer.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

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