Kentucky's 60-58 road win at Vanderbilt on Thursday night brought Wildcat basketball fans reasons to celebrate -- it was a league road victory, after all -- as well as reasons to scratch one's head, asking how a near blowout became a contest the 'Cats were LUCKY to win. Playing efficient basketball for the first 27 minutes of the game, the Wildcats came unglued with a quickness roughly midway through the second half, allowing Vanderbilt to nearly come back from a 17-point deficit to win the game.
For this UK squad, unlike previous Wildcat teams under John Calipari, the battle to incrementally improve has been partially thwarted by not playing intelligent basketball, with an assist from a lack of selfless play. It's been the tune the 'Cats have played all season, leaving victories pockmarked with coach-killing mistakes. Simply put, it's a good news/bad news Wildcat scenario, both in the context of the season so far, and in UK's win in Nashville.
Here's the good news, followed by the bad:
Good news: Kentucky had a 35-24 lead at halftime after holding Vanderbilt to 27.8 percent field goal shooting, 2-of-13 from long-distance.
Bad news: Kentucky had a 35-24 lead at halftime after holding Vanderbilt to 27.8 percent field goal shooting, 2-of-13 from long-distance -- While an 11-point halftime lead, on the road in the SEC, is nearly always a good thing, UK wasted opportunities to put further distance between themselves and the Commodores primarily with poor free throw and 3-point shooting. The 'Cats, until they gain stability from the line and beyond the arc, will continue to struggle to beat mediocre teams, particularly on the road.
Good news: Kentucky held Vanderbilt to just under 33 percent field goal shooting for the game, while the 'Cats' half-court man-to-man offense efficiently hummed along without the benefit of accurate shooting from beyond the arc.
Bad news: The Commodores went on a 18-0 second half run against the 'Cats (turning a 47-31 UK lead into a 49-47 Wildcat deficit) after Commodore coach Kevin Stallings went to a zone with 13-minutes left to go in the game -- The 'Cats seemed lost against the 2-3, unable to kill the zone with penetration and/or deadly 3-point shooting. Aggravating the bad news into worse news: UK's readily apparent zone offense struggles will serve as a blue print for other teams to closely follow until UK point guard Ryan Harrow opts to find the seams in the zone, or the team begins to consistently make shots from distance.
Good news: Kyle Wiltjer canned a huge shot -- his basket with 1:59 left gave UK a 56-54 lead -- off a set play intended to free him up from just inside the 3-point line at the elbow. Kentucky has used the same play with outstanding results all year, and it produced the desired result again, possibly making the difference in the Wildcat win.
Bad news: Wiltjer made only one shot in five attempts for the game, as he failed to connect from beyond the arc (0-2) in 14 minutes of action. Wiltjer was also consistently abused on the defensive end of the floor, much to the chagrin of Coach Cal:
"We had problems where, defensively, they went right at Kyle. It didn't matter who I put Kyle on, they put Kyle in a pick and roll or an (isolation). I told Kyle, if you can't play -- now every team's going to do that from here on -- either we play zone or you don't play. I think in the first half they had 24 points. I think 14 were on Kyle. Well, you can't. No, no. We're not accepting that."
What else did Calipari have to say to and about Wiltjer (programming note: Not for the faint of heart):
"Figure it out. You either don't stay in the game or figure it out. Fight or we'll figure it out (how to play without Wiltjer). You play lower, you play tougher, you do anything you can to stay in the game. Or you accept it and you're not playing. And we need Kyle in the game. Again, you can sit here and sugar-coat it, but you all watched it. They went at Kyle every possession I had him in the game. Every single possession.
"'Don't think every team now is going to go right at you. Good luck.' There's a couple of plays he just broke down; then (he should) just rebound. He didn't rebound, and they scored on him. I mean, fight man. Come on, where is it?"
Good news: Julius Mays nailed a big 3-point shot at the 17:12 mark of the second stanza, giving UK a 42-27 advantage.
Bad news: Mays made only 1-of-5 from outside the arc, continuing his maddeningly inconsistent outside shooting.
Bad news: Noel, WSC, and Poythress only took a combined 14 shots -- On a team cursed with inconsistent outside shooting, UK's three big men simply have to take more shots in order for the 'Cats to beat good teams. Whether that means running the pick-and-roll more often, or clearing space for Poythress to take his man one-on-one, or utilizing the lob more, Coach Cal has to find a way to get his team more high percentage shots.
Additional bad news related to the number of shots Poythress is taking is his lack of effort on the offensive glass, on defense, and going after loose balls. Calipari, once again, laments one of his players not playing smartly or with exceptional effort:
"Alex gets no offensive rebounds. His guy gets five. Now who is outworking who? It's exactly the stuff we've been talking about, but some of the stuff (individual instruction) didn't carry over.
"I was very clear with Alex after the game. Either you change or you think you're okay. That kid outworked him, and I believe that kid's a freshman. He outworked him. He ran the court harder, went after balls harder, rebounded better, defended. You (Poythress) can't let it happen. It's not acceptable. He just got outworked. So now, when you accept that that's the case, you'll come back and say, 'I've got to work harder in practice. I've got to make it a point that I'm not getting outworked.'"
With such a young Wildcat team, there is no room for error, much less, less than 100 percent effort and focus from all of the players. Ideally, the squad will learn from the mistakes made against Vanderbilt and realize, in league play, every opponent is to be respected. Every game is to be played within the confines of the game plan.
The other, less pleasant alternative, is for this group to continue to fight the coaching it is receiving, and struggle in conference play, putting themselves in position for a lower-than-anticipated seed when March rolls around.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!
To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett