The Kentucky Wildcats got a much-needed road win today against the Missouri Tigers, and they did it the old-fashioned way — by outscoring them. The defense that Kentucky played was more theoretical than real, particularly in transition. Missouri picked up on that difficulty and stayed in transition as often as possible in the second half, and the result was a huge comeback from 15 points down.
Missouri deserves a lot of credit for not giving up when they easily could have. They were down 15 points early in the second half, but gradually worked the lead down until they finally got it to within 3 with under a minute to go. Kentucky held on with clutch free throws to preserve the win, but Missouri deserves a lot of credit for exploiting the weaknesses Kentucky showed defensively.
As far as Kentucky is concerned, a road win is a road win. Personally, I'm not all that worried about blowing a big lead against a team with the kind of shooters Missouri has. I am concerned, and so should you be, about the poor Kentucky transition defense. We'll get to that soon enough.
Courtesy of Kenpom.com
This team is getting much better at playing with each other. They have now established a clear and recognizable offensive identity, which is to attack the basket with relentless efficiency, get to the line, and shoot the opportunistic three. Today, this team ran that system to near perfection. They were efficient, they took very few bad shots, they didn't make turnovers, and they attacked the rim on every possession.
In transition, Kentucky was ruthlessly exploited by the Missouri guards. This is a gigantic troll of a problem that Calipari must address immediately and at whatever length necessary to fix. Missouri is good at exploiting that weakness, but other teams are much, much better at it.
I don't think we can say enough about how well Kentucky dealt with all the foul adversity this game. It could have, and earlier in the year would have, distracted this team into a likely loss.
Calipari was again very demonstrative. I like this new style, I think it helps infuse energy into the team and prevent them from going into funks.
Defensive intensity was great early, then hit a kind of so-so patch. In the half court, on balance, the defense was good. In transition, it was just awful.
Kentucky is a poor transition offensive team. Too many times, the Wildcats tend to try to go one-on-many in an effort to draw fouls. It was almost never successful today. What needs to happen is that if Kentucky doesn't have a clear advantage in transition, they need to settle into their half-court offense, which has been really good and keeps getting better.
I was really impressed with the mental toughness of Kentucky in this game. They had the tough trip to Columbia to help excuse a loss, they had the lost lead, they had all kinds of opportunities to fold, lose, and blame it on some external factor. Instead, they hung tough and refused to let adversity defeat them. That's praiseworthy, and a sign of significant maturity.
Free throw shooting was fine. 3-point shooting was exceptional.
Kentucky won the offensive glass, but what they really did well was take care of the defensive glass.
1.25 points per possession is strong, and you won't lose any games at that efficiency.
Aaron Harrison was incredible. He had a personal offensive rating of 160, which is stunning, and he missed 4 shots out of 10. He made every free throw he took. He was good but not great defensively, but he was so smooth and unflappable offensively that he more than made up for it. Game ball amid a group of players who could have won it.
James Young was ... well, James Young. In most games, he could win the game ball with his combination of offensive and defensive effort. He was deadly from outside and had one of the more dominating dunks I can remember early.
Julius Randle just missed a double-double with 18 and 9. His 3 assists are just an indication of how much better he's getting at passing the ball out of the post.
Andrew Harrison had a good game overall, but I though he was not very good defensively, and he has to stop the one-on-three or four attacks. Andrew has to learn when to go, and when to trust the half court offense. Four-to-one assist to turnover? Really good.
Dakari Johnson had a pretty good game overall, I thought, considering his foul problems. He didn't rebound well, but he gave Kentucky a post presence that gave Missouri difficulty.
Alex Pothress had a really nice game, although he didn't shoot the ball great. He hustled, had a block, got 7 points and made a nice open three. His minutes were due to the foul problems on other big people.
Marcus Lee gave Kentucky 9 good minutes in relief of UK's big guys. He made the best dunk of the day on a reverse slam ally-oop.
Willie Cauley-Stein participated, produced 4 fouls, no rebounds, two missed free throws in his only attempt, and had 1 block in 7 minutes.
Dominique Hawkins only played 2 minutes but had 2 rebounds and a courageous drive that resulted in a hip bruise.
Jarrod Polson played well. He had a couple of rebounds and an assist, and he gave Andrew Harrison good relief minutes.
The zone defense Kentucky played looked good at times, and bad at times. I am somewhat encouraged that it seemed to improve as the game went on. Maybe Calipari should trot that thing out more often, but only for short stretches.
Folks, if we're being serious, we have to acknowledge that the Wildcats played so poorly defensively that they almost lost a game in which their offense was the best it has been all year against a team of this quality. That is a very disturbing thing to have to admit. For the moment, I'd just as soon ignore it.
Honestly, this game had more positives than negatives. Yes, the defense was poor, but the offense was very good and the team showed resilience, heart, and at times, intensity. That's progress when compared to the debacle that was the LSU game. It's easy to get down on this young team when they don't deliver their best performance, but they did a lot of good things out there. No, UK isn't ready to win the national championship right now, but the good news is, they still have time to get better before they attempt to climb that mountain.
So enjoy this victory, it was a big one and a good one. I'm personally very satisfied to get it, and the imperfections in the process were just part of the journey. There are many more games to play before the Wildcats have to prove themselves against the best in the country, and this team is nowhere near their ceiling yet. Right now, that's a hopeful statement.
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