Kentucky Wildcats, 60 at Vanderbilt Commodores, 58:  Postmortem

It was anything but pretty, but a win is a win. - Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky loses a 16-point second half lead to Vanderbilt and escapes a last-second Vanderbilt three to sneak out of Nashville with a win against a vastly inferior team.

It would be easy to go on a rant about how horribly the Kentucky Wildcats played in the second half, but I don't think I'm going to. At this point, Kentucky fans don't need to get down on the team, and down on the players. A win is a win, and while you would find no dissenters among the Big Blue Faithful if you allowed that this was one of the worst halves of basketball Kentucky has played all year, I guess that's just something we're going to have to live with until, if ever, this team finally develops some mental toughness.

Vanderbilt's young team showed a lot of fight tonight, and for that they deserve congratulations. They almost came back and won the game against a team that should have handed them a 20-point loss. You can't say anything bad about the effort the Commodores gave, although you could certainly fault their execution. But when they got it going, they started feeling the love from a less-than-partisan Memorial Gym crowd, and nearly pulled off the upset. Great effort.

I could go on and on about negatives, and we'll get to a few of those, but before we go down that dirty path, let's recognize that this team has a lot of positives to go with its negatives. Not many of them showed up in the second half, but plenty of them did in the first, and that first half is pretty easy to forget after living through the rest. Kentucky dominated the interior, they scored inside where they are supposed to, and they held Vandy to 24 points in the first half. The second half, of course, was a hot mess for all kinds of reasons.

Let's get to the negatives first:

  • Kentucky got crushed on the offensive glass. You may think the lack of offensive efficiency was the problem, and it was to some extent. But what really hurt Kentucky was the same problem that has bothered them all year -- offensive rebounds allowed, in this case, 15. The OR% differential will be ugly.
  • Want a stat that will explain the game to you right quick and in a hurry, even if you are not a big believer in offensive rebounding? Vanderbilt got up 17 more shots on goal than Kentucky in this game. Why? Offensive rebounds and 17 Kentucky turnovers.
  • Offensive execution was a problem, particularly against the zone. I blame that on John Calipari. He should have had that solved by now. There is no excuse. Raise your game, coach.
  • Mental toughness is a serious problem with this team, but this kind of game is exactly how you learn to develop it, so that's both a negative and a positive.
  • Free throw shooting continues to be horrible. No excuse, and that's not Cal's fault.
  • This team seems to be struggling to develop an identity. This is a negative, but it's not really solvable -- they either will or will not.

Now, let's go to the positives:

  • Defense wasn't really that bad, overall. In the second half, Vandy got a 2-for-one by going to a 2-3, a few possessions of 1-3-1 zone, and matched up out of the 2-3 several times. That blew Kentucky's mind, and Calipari thought he would put Wiltjer in as a zone-buster. Wiltjer was completely ineffective in this game, for the most part, and was a gigantic defensive liability against the much smaller and quicker Commodores.
  • Kentucky went really cold, missing a bunch of layups and short shots. That's going to happen rarely, but occasionally. They still got the win.

    Yes, I know the late Noel basket looked like a bad call, and that provided the margin, but bad calls happen. I saw UK get disadvantaged by a couple that led to baskets or points, so I refuse to use that as an excuse to bash the team.
  • That last possession was very tough defense against a desperate Vanderbilt team. The last shot was about as hurried and long as UK could have hoped for with that much time remaining.
  • Wars like this are good for a young team, although it is very hard on us fans. Get over it, let's let them breathe.
  • The more tough road games they experience, the better they will be at the end of the year. We saw that in 2011, only the 2011 team would have lost this game.
  • We lost a 16-point lead, went into a 2-point hole and came back to win. That's a positive.

Now, for the players:

  • I'm giving Ryan Harrow the game ball. Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein did some good things, but Harrow, for the most part, was very impressive. 16 points on 6-13 shooting, 2-5 from distance, 5 rebounds, 4 assists 1 steal and 1 turnover.
  • Noel was pretty good, but he was a non-factor for long periods. Still, 13 points on 6-8 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals.
  • WCS had a great first half and almost nothing in the second. Still, his line is quite adequate - 7 points on 3-5 shooting, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 steals and zero turnovers.
  • Alex Poythress was a mess. He made a few plays, but he looked like a bench player out there. Charged into everything that moved, and none of the calls were close. For a kid as smart as he is, he plays some pretty unsmart basketball. 2-3 from the field for 7 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block and 4 turnovers, 3-4 from the line -- the only player other than Harrow to shoot a free throws at better than 50%.
  • Archie Goodwin was also singularly untidy. He plays so hard and with such intensity, but sometimes with astonishing ... irrationality. He's like, I don't know, a random element - he either hurts you or he helps you in sum, but he always does a little of both. 12 points on 5-14 shooting, 0-4 from the line, 5 rebounds, 4 turnovers 3 assists and 2 steals.
  • Julius Mays was a strange non-factor. He made 1-5 shots for 3 points, had 4 rebounds and 2 turnovers. It's like he drifted through the game.
  • Kyle Wiltjer just struggled. He could not guard the pick and roll, he could not take a charge, he couldn't stop 55-year old, 5'10" Glenn Logan with two bad knees who can't jump over the latest issue of Sports Illustrated from driving to the basket and making layups.

    But he did do one thing - hit the shot against the zone (in the middle, where he should have been) that put UK ahead for good. Wiltjer had 1 rebound. At 6'10". It makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

I just heard Calipari's comments, and they essentially were, "We won, and I'm really glad." That's about it. He did bemoan the fact that they beat us to every 50/50 ball (true) and that Poythress' man got like 6 offensive rebounds (also true), among other nit-picky details that matter mostly in close games.

Look, it's easy to get down about games like this, but I'm not going to. I'll take this win, put it in my pocket, and look forward to a better game against Texas A&M, which comes up in just under 48 hours.

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