Kentucky Basketball: Keys to 'Cats continuing recent success

Kyle Wiltjer's growing versatility may be the key to UK's future success - Frederick Breedon

With the Kentucky Wildcats playing better basketball of late, I examine the three key areas that need to continue to improve in order for the 'Cats to fulfill their vast potential.

With the Kentucky Wildcats sitting at 3-1 in SEC play (12-5 overall), and facing a road test at Alabama (11-6, 3-1 SEC) tonight at 9:00 ET, most 'Cat fans seem to be emanating an aura of approval over the recent play of the team. Coming off a solid, 10-point home win against Tennessee, and a 22-point road romp over Auburn, memories of the stinging loss to Texas A&M three games ago seem to have been pushed back into the far reaches of UK fans' memory bank. After all, the Big Blue Nation is addicted to loving its 'Cats, and will go to any lengths to find reasons to believe.

We begin the BBN's reasons to believe the 'Cats will make an indelible mark on the 2013 season, with ...

Ryan Harrow

Without question, the sophomore has taken a tight-fisted hold on the lead guard spot since his return from an early-season illness -- Harrow is sixth in the SEC in assist/turnover ratio at 2.3 (3.8 assists to 1.6 turnovers per game), ahead of the more heralded BJ Young of Arkansas (2.1), preseason SEC Player of the Year, Missouri's Phil Pressey (1.9), and the guard Harrow will square off with tonight, Bama's Trevor Lacey (1.8).

In UK's last five games, Harrow is averaging 5.2 assists per contest, and since returning to the lineup eight games ago, is averaging 15.6 points per game. Harrow also has fits of perfection, as he boasts five games with nary a turn.

Quite simply, Harrow has provided stability at the point (something UK fans pined for in his absence), as Cal is now toying with the pick-and-roll, using Harrow and Wiltjer as the stars of the play (something that paid dividends for the 2011 'Cats down the stretch, as Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson laid waste to hesitating, and/or mismatched p&r defenders).

Finally, Harrow, at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, seems to have taken great umbrage to the preseason talk of him being smallish and less physical than typical Cal points, and now seems to almost invite contact, while not hesitating to be a rim runner. The 'Cats are better, and getting better, because of it.

Nerlens Noel

Another reason UK is (seemingly) beginning to play like a team capable of joining Florida and Ole Miss as the SEC's best teams, is the continued solid, sometimes spectacular play of Nerlens Noel. The man most often compared to Anthony Davis has not shrunk from the challenge of following Davis as UK's resident big man. He instead has embraced the role as low block enforcer, while displaying a rapidly improving offensive game.

For those who aren't into comparing players, or think it unfair to compare, please turn your head[s], because here comes the side-by-side breakdown of just how productive Noel has been compared to last season's college basketball Player of the Year (through the first 17 games of the season):

  • Minutes played: Davis - 501, Noel - 526
  • Minutes per game: Davis - 29.5, Noel - 30.9
  • Points per game: Davis - 12.8, Noel - 10.8
  • Rebounds per game: Davis - 10.3, Noel - 9.2
  • Offensive rebounds per game: Davis - 3.0, Noel - 2.8
  • Free throw percentage: Davis - 67.1, Noel - 57.1
  • Free throws taken per game: Davis - 4.1, Noel - 3.7
  • Field goal percentage: Davis - 63.9, Noel - 58.7
  • Shots taken per game: Davis - 7.8, Noel - 7.4
  • Blocks per game: Davis - 4.6, Noel - 4.1
  • Steals per game: Davis - 1.5, Noel - 2.6
  • Assists per game: Davis - .9, Noel - 1.8

Furthermore (in the admittedly weak SEC), Noel's numbers are on the improve: In his last four games, Noel is averaging 12.5 points per game, shooting a scorching 68.9 percent from the field, and a surprising 66.7 percent from the charity stripe (10-15). In league play, Noel is swatting shots at a record pace, averaging 5.8 blocks per game (Noel blocks shots out of his zone every bit as good as Davis did), and is continuing his torrid steal and assist pace by pilfering 10 balls (2.5 per game) and assisting on eight baskets (2.0 per game).

Nerlens has become a gets-better-every-time-he-steps-on-the-floor player. Just like his predecessor.

And considering Davis is one of the best, if not THE best center to ever defend, and rattle the rim, in the history of UK basketball, Noel's numbers have to be respected. He's getting the job done, and the manner in which he plays -- passionately, and with great vigor -- may lead him to taking over the leadership mantle of this team. Something John Calipari happily seconds.

Kyle Wiltjer

Perhaps most important to UK continuing its run of success, though, is the play of forward Kyle Wiltjer. Consider this: In Kentucky's five losses, Wiltjer made an average of 1.4 three-pointers per game, shot 26.9 percent from distance (7-26), and averaged 7.0 points per game. Compared to Wiltjer's numbers in UK's 12 wins: 2.6 made three-pointers per contest, 47.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and 13.7 points per game.

The only game UK has lost with Wiltjer producing on the offensive end was Louisville (4-7 treys, 14 points), a game UK rallied to within an eyelash of winning, partly on the strength of the Oregon native's four made bombs.

Additionally, the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer seems to be in the process of becoming the 2013 version of Josh Harrellson (or even the 2013 version of Anthony Davis), as Cal, over the last few games, is using KW in the pick-and-roll with Harrow. Either at the elbow, or on the wing, Wiltjer with the ball in his hands, and space in front of him, is a dangerous proposition for opponents, and the reason the pick-and-roll could be seen much more frequently going forward (Wiltjer has posted a team-high 23 shots the last two games, 11 which came inside the arc).

Whether Calipari uses KW in the pick-and-roll, or frees him up 15-feet out on the wing with off-ball screens, the head coach is clearly searching for ways of getting Wiltjer more looks. And if recent data is to be trusted -- Wiltjer has made 7-of-11 two-point shots over the last two games (63.6 percent), where in the previous five contests, he connected on only 7-of-20 from inside the arc (35 percent) -- one has to think Calipari will continue to feed Wiltjer the ball using any means necessary.

And with Wiltjer's rapidly improving passing acumen -- seven assists the last two games, several of the no-look variety -- Cal might see fit to run a high post offensive look, with Wiltjer playing the trigger man from just inside the top of the key.

Worst case scenario with Wiltjer manning the high post is that he pulls a big man away from the basket. Best case scenario; the big man finds himself open for a 17-footer, or dishes to a cutter, or backs down a smaller defender.

Adding versatility to UK's offensive play book. That's what Wiltjer's improvement allows. And the more variety the 'Cats offer on the offensive end, the harder they are to guard.

Big Blue needs to ...

In order for UK to remove the letters N.I.T. from the lexicon of the college basketball nation when talk turns to Kentucky (and wouldn't the minions love to see the 'Cats miss the Big Dance), Nerlens must continue to tremendously impact both ends of the floor, Harrow must continue to play with confidence and fearlessness, and Wiltjer must prove to be a consistently versatile offensive asset.

While the play of Noel, Harrow, and Wiltjer might be the key reasons UK will reach its potential (if the 'Cats indeed do), there are other areas, other players, who must accept that they aren't a finished product:

  • Archie Goodwin needs to improve his shot selection, although UK's high energy two-guard is making 48.1 percent of his two-point shots, he could easily be above the 50-percent mark if he were more discerning.
  • Alex Poythress needs to continue to incrementally improve in the area of effort, and while he's at it, shoot more -- Poythress is making 62.0 percent of his overall shots, and 47.4 percent of his shots from distance, but he's averaging only 7.6 shots per game. And oh, a steal every now and then would be nice, as Poythress has only three thefts all year.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein needs to just do what he's been doing, such as, making 62.1 percent of his shots, and grabbing nearly six boards per game (along with two blocks), in 20.9 minutes of play. Sure, WSC's free throw line appearances are fraught with hard-to-watch misses (he's making only 36.1 percent from the line), but at least he doesn't attempt many freebies (just over two per game).
  • Julius Mays, who has made a couple of big shots for UK over the last several games, has been on the season either en fuego, or dry ice-like. Or, in a word, unpredictable. Check this out: In UK's first four games, Mays was 4-of-14 from distance ( 28.6 percent), the next four games, 11-of-25 (44.0 percent), the next six games, 6-of-31 (19.4 percent), and finally, the last three contests, 6-of-13 (46.2 percent). Some great shooters are streaky, but Mays needs to find a way to be more consistent than the 32.5 percent three-point shooter he is currently masquerading as.

At the beginning of the season, Kentucky fans knew that they had no idea what to expect out of this group of youthful 'Cats. One never really does under Calipari, but one thing UK fans are accustomed to is the 'Cats getting better as the season progresses. In some teams the light bulb moment happens very abruptly, where one can almost see it in the players' eyes. This team, though, is still fighting to get to that moment, but as UK fans, that's really all we can ask.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett

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