Kentucky fans have been waiting all year for the Wildcats to look like a dangerous team, and the have done so a couple of times -- against Duke, against Louisville, and finally again tonight against Auburn.
Auburn gave a good effort but hit an arctic cold streak of perimeter shooting that did them in. That kind of taints Kentucky's victory tonight, because nobody can say that the number of open threes missed by the Tigers fairly represents their team. Yes, Kentucky's defense had something to do with it, but 0-15 for a team that shoots 36% from the arc is extraordinary. They probably won't come close to that for the rest of the year.
In all honesty, though, Kentucky played very well in the second half. Auburn made some shots and did very well inside the arc, particularly with Nerlens Noel on the bench as he was for much of this game with foul trouble, but their inability to make shots that they normally hit really killed any chance the Tigers had to compete.
What I loved about this game was how much better Kentucky executed its offense. I was not totally pleased with the defensive effort, since Auburn genuinely struggled to shoot from the perimeter and got quite a few open looks that they just missed. But the interior defense was very good, and although the offensive rebounding wasn't great, it was good enough.
- Kyle Wiltjer and Nerlens Noel once again fight it out for the game ball. Noel had 10 points, 9 rebounds, 7 blocks, and at least two steals. He once again flirted with a triple-double. Wiltjer had 17 points on 6-13 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal and a partridge in a pear tree. I give it to Noel all the time for stuffing the stat line, but this one goes to Wiltjer. Still, give super props to Noel for splendid overall defense. He really sets the standard.
- Julius Mays did what he always does. He played hard, made a couple of threes, and didn't hurt the team. He defended okay.
- Archie Goodwin played under control, maybe a little too much. He had 12 points on a ridiculous (for him) 5-7 shooting, 7 rebounds, an assist, 3 steals and only 2 turnovers. Great line for Archie, but a touch subdued. His defensive effort was also not that good.
- Ryan Harrow played horribly for 17 minutes, then went nuts. He didn't make a three, but in the second half he made almost all his shots. 6-12 shooting, 12 points, 5 rebounds, 8 (eight!) assists, 1 steal and 5 (five!) turnovers. Schizophrenic, but effective.
- Jarrod Polson played very well in his 10 minutes. He made every shot he took, 3-3, had 6 points, 3 rebounds, a block and a turnover.
- Alex Poythress played well, but he still just isn't quite there. He scored 12 points, continues to shoot it well at 3-7, made all but one of his free throws (7-8), and pulled down 7 rebounds, 3 offensive, and had a steal. The line looks okay, but the eye test did not impress, and I thought he was just okay defensively.
- Jon Hood played, but didn't impact the score sheet. He was out there early, though, and that was good to see.
- Kentucky shot 54% overall, which is quite satisfactory. 33% from the arc is less so, but not horrible.
- An offensive rebound percentage of 22.5% is anemic at best. Yes, it was better than Auburn, but the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein was definitely felt.
- Holding Auburn to 34% shooting looks great, but honestly, they just had a bad game. It would be dissembling to suggest Kentucky's defense was responsible for that. The 'Cats didn't play bad defense, particularly inside the arc, but Auburn got far too many clean looks from three for me to be happy.
- Communication is improving, BUT ... Ryan Harrow run into two thunderous screens. That should never happen for a team that is communicating and watching out for each other.
- I liked our passing, particularly that of Harrow and Wiltjer, but we made about 3 turnovers too many.
- I must say, without WCS, this team looked a little more fluid. Maybe it was a mirage, but that's what I thought I saw. I do think the defense suffered, though.
Overall, this was a surprise, and a happy one. I expected Auburn to give us a tough game, and they just laid down. UK had something to do with that, but honestly, this was more about the Auburn failure to fire than anything particularly great Kentucky did. If you told me Nerlens Noel was going to spend the first half on the bench and Kentucky would win by 21, I would have fallen over in a dead faint.
Still, this was a step forward, and no mistake. UK did enough good things to make me happy, and I feel significantly better about the team now than I did coming in, and also in their ability to weather the loss of WCS. The next game is a much tougher one just down the road in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday against the Alabama Crimson Tide. That one will be a much greater test of how far this team has advanced, because Alabama showed great determination in a win today against a team, Texas A&M, that took us down at home.
But that's another story. Let's celebrate this victory. Go, 'Cats!