I am celebrating victory because it is better than lamenting defeat, but as much as I had hoped this Kentucky team was going to be a serious challenger for the national title this year, those hopes are, at least at the moment, on indefinite hold.
For the third straight game, we saw a Kentucky team that simply doesn't have whatever it is that has made the last three Wildcats squads so memorable. I temper that with the fair observation that the 2011 team was pretty much struggling at this point in the season as well, and was also 2-1 in the SEC after the third game, although they never lost a home game.
Kudos to the Tennessee Volunteers for playing like a team that needed a win, which honestly, they did. Coming into Rupp Arena 0-2 in the SEC is never a prescription for success, and despite surrendering a loss at home to a white-hot Texas A&M team last Saturday, the Wildcats found a way to hold off a valiant challenge from the Vols. The score is by no means representative of the game, which was nip and tuck all the way.
I have to give this young Kentucky team credit -- after facing a similar challenge by Texas A&M and folding, this time the Wildcats hung tough and got the win. The didn't win pretty... oh no. They won very, very ugly. This was amongst the ugliest basketball games I have seen in Rupp Arena, but as you all surely know, the only thing that counts, in the end, is the W. We got that. I'm drinking a celebratory Four Roses Single Barrel in honor of it, because it was about as big as a third conference game can ever be.
What went into this victory? Well, not stellar defense, that's for sure, although it did get better in the second half. What won it was the determination of two young men -- Kyle Wiltjer and Nerlens Noel, plus some timely shooting from Julius Mays, which should not be minimized.
- Kyle Wiltjer and Nerlens Noel were simply excellent. I never expected Wiltjer to have a game where he was offensively potent and defensively solid, but this was such a game -- 17 points on 6-10 shooting and only 2-6 from distance, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and 1 turnover. Noel was also impressive -- 12 points on 5-7 shooting, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks 4 steals, 2 assists, 3 turnovers and a partridge in a pear tree. Noel wins the game ball by virtue of a ridiculous, nearly unprecedented stat line.
- Ryan Harrow continues to struggle shooting, but did a lot of good things. 12 points on 3-9 shooting, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and zero turnovers.
- Alex Poythress continues to be solid. 10 points on 3-5 shooting, 2-2 from distance, 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 turnovers. That isn't a super line, but it's definitely very good.
- Julius Mays had a so-so game, but what gets him up here is those two dagger threes he made near the end of the game that gave us the margin we needed. 3-5 from the field, 2-3 from distance 1 assist and 1 turnover
- Willie Cauley-Stein was in some foul trouble and really didn't play as well as he could have, mainly because Wiltjer was playing better. 7 points on 3-5 shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 turnovers.
- Archie Goodwin continues to struggle. He's just in one of those places where he takes all the wrong shots at all the wrong times, and tries too hard rather than just playing the game. 2-10 shooting, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers.
- Jarrod Polson came in and played 7 minutes without recording a single statistic other than that.
- Some would call this an "uneven" effort. I would say the game just stank. It doesn't look horrible from a statistical standpoint, but if you watched it, this game would never appear under the description of "beautiful basketball." It was, however, a win, and that is beautiful.
- There were a few more times tonight when the offense seemed to make sense. But the times when it didn't make sense were exceptionally ugly.
- How bad would this team be without Noel? I don't even want to think about it.
- Kentucky turned the ball over too much, but the percentage will look okay.
- Kentucky dominated Tennessee on the glass. I never would have predicted that. That's a really good sign, and of all the things other than the victory itself, that is the single most encouraging to me.
- Kentucky had 4 players in double-digits. Shades of 2012.
- 6 steals and 8 blocks would make you think Kentucky's defense was great. Those of us who watched would probably not agree.
Next up, Auburn on the road on Saturday. Normally, Auburn wouldn't be a concern. This year, Auburn is 2-0, although they play Arkansas on the road tomorrow, and I don't think they'll be 3-0 on Saturday when we show up there.
In the meantime, let's celebrate a little. This game could have gone sideways, but Kentucky toughed it out. There may have been more learned here than meets the eye. Let's hope so.