As we move inexorably toward mid-season in the SEC, we're starting to reach a point at which the Kentucky Wildcats must decide if they are going to contend, or if they are just going to be a good team with a lot of untapped potential. There comes a point at which "upside" diminishes in importance, and although Kentucky is not yet at that point, it is getting there fast. As Yoda famously said in The Empire Strikes Back, "Do. Or do not. There is no 'try.'" Against Texas A&M, Kentucky "did,"" but only just. It would be comparable to Luke Skywalker raising his X-wing from the muck and getting just enough of it out to make repairs possible.
Regarding the Aggies, I must say they played hard, if not well. Kentucky was fortunate in two respects — one, that Billy Kennedy was disciplining one of his more important reserves, and two, two of A&M's best players, Jordan Green and Jamal Jones, were hampered with very serious foul trouble from the 5 minute mark on. That left Texas A&M comparatively toothless in a game in which they were already at a venue disadvantage. But they never gave up, and showed the kind of fight that makes head coaches proud.
The time for "rah rah" and pats on the back are rapidly coming to a close. We have reached the point in the season where teams either put on their championship attitude and make a run, or they settle for less than excellence. We are not quite there yet, but we are close.
The trajectory of 2014 is not like the trajectory of the 2012 NCAA champs, or the 2010 team that bullied themselves to a #1 seed. The trajectory of this team is either like 2011, who got to the Final Four when it all came together late in the year, or something disappointingly less. The pre-season hopes of a mighty juggernaut with its foot on the neck of college basketball have long since been interred.
For about 25 minutes of this game, Kentucky was very sharp offensively. The other 15, they were at varying grades of imperfection from ordinary to downright listless.
This Kentucky team reminds me very much of 2011, and not in a good way, at least not yet. But like 2011, we have one guy on the team who has committed himself to an extraordinary level of preparation. What we have yet to see is whether or not he can drag the rest of them along.
When Kentucky keeps their passes short, and is patient, they are downright devastating. Even when they don't get a good look, they get something going to the basket and get fouled.
Team defense was excellent, overall, in this game. UK held the Aggies to 0.77 points per possession. That's putting the clamps on. In fact, this one game put Kentucky's defensive efficiency back into the range where you can imagine them getting to the Final Four.
Team offense was not particularly good, efficiency-wise, at 1.09 points per possession, but it was pretty good. What held UK back was two things: shot selection — too many "settled" 3-point shots, and turnovers.
Free throw shooting was just okay. 67% isn't good, but it isn't awful. I know some people will want to complain about it, but anything over 65% is acceptable right now. We need to see it trending toward 70%. For the most part, that's what we see, but a couple of individuals are really holding Kentucky back.
Offensive rebounding? Pretty bad in the first half, but absolutely dominant in the second. The defensive rebounding was truly great. 83% DR is really getting it done. If Kentucky had rebounded 83% defensive boards against Tennessee, the Volunteers would have died an ugly death in Rupp Arena Saturday.
Calipari continues to use the bench well, although not as good as he could have. He admitted forgetting about Derek Willis. Calipari, please stop "forgetting," you had lots of opportunity to get him in there. You ask your charges to be accountable — I'm going to hold you accountable. Fix it, please.
Here are the team statistics courtesy of Kenpom.com:
Alex Poythress had his best game ever tonight. I think we said that about the Tennessee game as well. Two in a row is really exciting, and note particularly the two blocks and excellent free throw shooting. Three turnovers is the only negative thing in his line. Game ball.
Andrew Harrison had a very good game despite shooting the ball poorly. Seven rebounds is strong for a guard, and four assists are nice. The four turnovers, we could do without. But overall, I thought he ran the team well, particularly in the second half. He just needs to slow down a little when the Wildcats don't have numbers.
Willie Cauley-Stein just struggled to do anything well. Calipari said he has taken a step back. I agree. His 1-4 from the line, plus Dakari's 0-2, accounts for free throw shooting not being solid.
Aaron Harrison's game looks suspiciously like his brother's, except for the rebounding and turnovers. Two steals are noteworthy. Aaron had a good defensive game.
James Young is the most consistent player on this team. He almost never brings a bad game, and this one was no different. Note the two steals and only one turnover.
Julius Randle didn't get off that many shots, and he shouldn't have — he was double teamed a lot. What did he do? Pass to open teammates (three assists) and rebound (11, including 4 offensive). That's the kind of game we need from him every day. If he gets 18 or 20, fine, but he is starting to play much smarter. One turnover is a vast improvement from the three or four he has been averaging. Two nice blocks and a steal show his new commitment to defense. The steal came on a magnificent play in transition.
Dakari Johnson was great in this game. He got starter minutes, and he put up starter numbers. Seven rebounds is good, but he can do better. Two turnovers from your center is okay, and three blocks is really good from a guy who you don't expect to block a lot of shots. On the negative side, Johnson was 0-2 from the line. He has to start making free throws.
Jarrod Polson did what he always does — steadied the team when they were stamping and tugging on the reigns. He is like Antares, the horse in Ben Hur's chariot team — the slowest, and the steadiest.
Marcus Lee saw a few minutes in this game, and I though he played very well defensively. He missed a shot he should've blocked, but it was good effort.
The things we must note, very hopefully, are these: Randle is learning how to deal with double-teams very well, Andrew is learning to run the point with efficiency, and the team effort is showing up more and more often. Yes, it is also absent for maddening stretches, but we are now seeing it more often than not.
Another good thing is that players are settling into roles, and this team has an offensive identity, which is relentless basket attack. Defensively, we still don't know, but we are seeing flashes. Transition is still a problem on both ends, and even though UK made some points in transition, they didn't look really comfortable doing it for such an athletic team. Defensively, they are still letting too many transition baskets happen.
Having said all that, this team showed some things tonight that we have not seen as much of previously. That's very encouraging, but they can't stop. In fact, they need to step on the gas and start making these newfound good things part of them, of who they are.
In other words: Faster, please.