The Wildcats have had 10 days off following their biggest win of the season thus far. John Calipari now has a win under his belt against a team that was previously ranked in the top ten. He put his team through Camp Cal with the hopes of making strides on the court and making them come together as brothers, not just teammates.
The conference season will begin on Wednesday against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. The SEC is again trending down as a basketball conference, but we have seen in the past that perception doesn't really matter when the games are actually played.
Here are five questions that I have heading into conference competition:
What Did the Players Learn During Camp Cal?
Last season's Camp Cal was used as a tool to toughen up a mentally weak team. The attempt was futile and the Wildcats plunged headlong towards a disastrous season. I feel the approach to this edition of Camp Cal was much different.
Hopefully there was an emphasis of defense and offensive flow. The scoring has not been a problem thus far and I don't envision it as a problem as the season progresses. John Calipari always states that the team puts offense in first and then defense comes later; and we saw the defense improve the more games they played. Their best defensive performance was against Louisville, and that gives them something upon which to build. I feel that players are recognizing their roles better, specifically James Young and Aaron Harrison, who are becoming lockdown defenders.
KSR's Matt Jones was in attendance for some workouts during the winter break and stated on his radio show that he was particularly impressed with the coachability of this team. He said that they responded positively to Cal's yelling and criticism. The players, the Harrison twins in particular, also stopped practice multiple times in order to ask questions about where they should be in certain situations.
If this is the mentality of the team, then things are looking up as far as maturation and understanding are concerned.
Which Player will be More Effective in Conference Play that didn't Necessarily Shine during the Non-Conference Season?
Dominique Hawkins was without a question the surprise player during the non-conference schedule and Alex Poythress was the most important player to come off of the bench; but I think Dakari Johnson will be a vital piece to Kentucky's game plan during conference play.
Many SEC teams will try to control the tempo when they play the Wildcats as well as use physicality as a weapon. While Willie Cauley-Stein is more of an athlete, Johnson has shown the ability to be a bruiser down low. I also like Johnson's decision making in the paint and he could be instrumental in breaking down the zones that Kentucky will no doubt see. During the Louisville game, he was quick to kick the ball back out to a perimeter player if the defense collapsed on him. At least one of those passes resulted in a James Young three pointer.
How Will Kentucky Handle the Hostile Road Environment?
The road games will include trips to Vanderbilt, Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Florida. Out of those nine games, four of them could be extremely tough. Arkansas continues to beat anybody and everybody that steps foot in Fayetteville; LSU is an experienced team that will be looking to make the tournament; Ole Miss is always tough in the Tad; and the Rowdy Reptiles are always hungry to chomp on the Wildcats.
We've seen in the past that Cal's ‘Cats have had their struggles on the road in conference play; in 2010, that talented John Wall team took a surprising loss on the road to South Carolina (I still have nightmares of Devan Downey and Sandstorm) and another on the road against Tennessee. In 2011, that Final Four team couldn't buy a road win in the SEC, and last season was what it was. The only exception to that rule was the national title team that went undefeated in conference play and going undefeated was no easy chore. They were down by a large deficit at Mississippi State and had to rally back to win and a good Vanderbilt team almost beat them in Nashville.
So far these Wildcats are 1-3 away from Rupp Arena, only one of those losses being a true road game. I thought that Kentucky handled the crowd in the Dean Dome quite well and I don't think that loss was due to the road atmosphere but more due to transition defense.
Like Cal says, Kentucky is the Super Bowl game for every team in the SEC and the crowd loves to turn out when the ‘Cats roll into town. Never mind that the arena is usually about half filled or less during any other night, Kentucky always brings out the best in fan and player intensity alike.
If Kentucky goes 6-3 on the road or better, then I feel very good about making a Final Four run.
What Quality Wins are Left for Kentucky?
Kentucky was 1-3 against ranked opponents during the non-con slate but they could have easily been 4-0 if the ball would have rolled a little differently in some of those games. As of now, the SEC looks to only have three teams that are tournament worthy: Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri; so the chance for quality wins look to be slim at this point.
The good news is that gets the Gators twice and could possibly play them again in the SEC tournament. Missouri is ranked 25th as of now with only one loss against Illinois and a win over UCLA. No one is for sure how good Frank Haith's team really is at this point.
Out of the rest of the conference, I can see maybe Ole Miss or Arkansas making a serious run for a tournament bid. Like I stated previously, Arkansas looks unbeatable in Bud Walton Arena, but they lost two games on a neutral court in Hawaii against Cal and Gonzaga. Ole Miss could possibly put something together with Marshall Henderson, but he isn't the same player as he was a season ago and the Rebs own losses against Mercer and Dayton.
It looks as if it is a three horse race in the SEC this season.
Is Andrew Harrison Ready to be the Guy for Kentucky?
Andrew's struggles have been well documented: the body language, the lack of scoring, the inability to defend at an elite level, he isn't the leader of the team, etc.
Some of those criticisms have been unfair. John Calipari relies more on Andrew Harrison than any other player on the team. Cal often talks about having to be on the same page as his point guard, almost to the point where both have to be symbiotic in their thought process. Cal doesn't ask this of any other player; therefore Andrew has an added pressure that his teammates do not understand.
Andrew played his best game against his toughest positional opponents in Russ Smith and Chris Jones. Harrison routinely beat them off the dribble and used his size advantage to get to the basket and score as well as get fouled. He made great decisions and ran the offense quite well. He stayed out of foul trouble on defense and was able to guard bigger players when a switch was necessary.
His intensity met the toughness of the challenge and the young point guard outshined the two more experienced players down the stretch. But most importantly he was confident and he was into the game. He didn't hang his head, he battled, he played to win and he played with enthusiasm.
Was that performance against Louisville a harbinger of the player he is becoming?
One of the hardest positions in all of college basketball is point guard for John Calipari. Not only does Andrew have the expectations of his coach, but he has the expectations of the rest of the country that saw John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague play for Kentucky.
There is no question that Andrew has to be The Guy for John Calipari. Julius Randle is the best player on the team, Willie Cauley-Stein is the best defender, and James Young is the best pure scorer; but Andrew has to be the best link between the coach and the team.
If Cal can get Andrew on the same page, then everything else will start falling into place.
Those are my questions heading into SEC play. What are some of yours?