It's easy to get caught up in yesterday's game as a reversion to earlier form, and that may well be true. There were a lot of problems with the way Kentucky played yesterday, especially defensively. The Wildcats still seem to go through periods where they are simply abysmal in transition defense, and the offense sputters. We saw numerous good examples of that yesterday. With that said, it needs to be pointed out that games on the road are tough in the SEC, and this was just another example of why. No matter how much better a team seems to be on paper than their opponent, games wind up being competitive regardless.
Mississippi St., to their credit, played very hard, harder than Kentucky in my view. Yes, dear Wildcat fan, that is not a positive for Kentucky, and they clearly came into this game underestimating their ailing and thin foe. MSU demonstrated that any team in the SEC, regardless of its record or perceived quality, can rise up and play anybody tough, and that's what the Bulldogs did yesterday. Give them credit for that, they most definitely deserve it.
Kentucky did not play their best on either side of the ball. The offense sputtered and they struggled shooting, the transition defense was too porous again, allowing too many transition layups, although it did improve as the game progressed. Kentucky also had major foul problems, which definitely affected the team rhythm, and created a number of lineups we haven't seen all year.
Having said that, those unusual lineups performed reasonably well, arguably even better than the starters at times. A lot of credit goes to Kentucky's reserves for providing the Wildcats with the support they needed to win this game and avoid a bad loss.
Let's take a quick look at the stats, and the Four Factors:
Game stats (Via KenPom.com)
Four Factors (Via Statsheet.com)
In what universe does Mississippi St. more than double Kentucky in free throw rate? I really don't know what to make of this. Reflexively, I think of too much outside shooting, but UK shot only 2 threes over their average. Which leaves the officiating. I think the officials are allowing far too much contact on Kentucky's big players, and the number of offensive fouls were a big problem, considering most of them either looked like bad calls or have been going the other way most of the year. Anyway, this upside-down stat is responsible for some of the "ugliness" we saw.
Kentucky rebounded poorly in the first half, but asserted themselves in the second. Still, 34% OR is not a great number, and Kentucky has been declining in this statistic lately.
Can't complain about turnovers. 14% is just fine.
3-point shooting was again awful. After three good games shooting the ball from the arc, the Wildcats have shot under 20% the last two. This is a frustrating inconsistency.
Kentucky's defense was solid, at 0.91 points per possession. But the offense was bad, and that was due primarily to poor 3-point shooting. I'll take 57% from 2 any fine day.
Kentucky's zone offense did not look right to me. They weren't getting the ball into the middle, but despite that, they moved the zone enough to get many great looks from three. They just missed them all — well, all but 3, anyway.
The zone looked good at times, bad at times. Overall, it's beginning to grow on me as Kentucky gets better at it.
One of the things we should keep in mind is that despite the ugliness of the game, Kentucky was never seriously threatened.
This may go a bit against the grain, but I'm giving Dakari Johnson the game ball. He made all three of his shot attempts, all three of his free throw attempts, and got eight rebounds (three offensive) in only 12 minutes of play. He also had a block and zero turnovers. Per minute, he was by far Kentucky's best player. Game ball.
It's hard to complain about Julius Randle's line, but I find myself wanting more out of him, and I'd give anything to see him take care of the ball better. He literally had 31% of Kentucky's turnovers.
Aaron Harrison had a good game, really, despite shooting the ball badly. He had five rebounds and six assists against only two turnovers, and two steals in the bargain. Aaron is really beginning to produce, although only one trip to the line gives me some pause, that's normally much better.
Andrew Harrison struggled with fouls, and I think unfairly so. I think he had three offensive fouls called on him (although it might have been two), I can't tell from the box or play-by-play. In any case, only one of them was an offensive foul, the other(s) were just wrong calls.
James Young had what I would call one of his worst games. He didn't defend very well, he didn't shoot very well, and he drew Calipari's ire. He did make free throws, but got only one rebound.
Jarrod Polson saw 30 minutes in this game, a season high by a mile. His next closest was 21 minutes against Belmont. He played very well, too, although he did struggle with the quickness of the MSU guards and shot the ball very poorly.
Willie Cauley-Stein had an okay game. He was pretty good offensively, but like Young and Andrew Harrison, he had foul trouble. He was perfect from the floor (4-4), and had four rebounds, not bad for only 15 minutes.
Alex Poythress didn't play quite as well as he has been, but he did okay. He missed a flat-out dunk, and that was definitely a lowlight. But he got stronger as the game went on and his stats were pretty good, other than his shooting, which wasn't.
Jon Hood played a season-high 13 minutes, and I though he played really well. He got a couple of rebounds, made a three, and didn't turn the ball over once.
Derek Willis played for one minute and managed a turnover.
When you look at the stats, the thing that stands between this being a solid performance and a below-average one is really only one thing — 3-point shooting. I thought the Wildcats took too many threes to begin with, and to compound that problem, they didn't make them. More patience, less settling, more getting fouled and getting to the line.
To be honest, I really thought Kentucky's focus wasn't there in this game. It didn't cost them, because their talent is just too great to be overcome by a team like Mississippi St. even on the road absent a total breakdown, and that's by no means what we saw. Still, those of us hoping to see Kentucky dominate lesser teams are going to have to wait a while, if it ever happens. The tendency now is to look forward to Florida, but Auburn proved yesterday at LSU that they can be a threat, and that was in Baton Rouge. They are going to be much tougher under their home roof, and Kentucky had best respect their opponent and prepare accordingly.
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