Last night, the Kentucky Wildcats showed us something that we haven't seen much of this season, which was a coherent offense and effective defense, all in the same basketball game. Whatever Calipari "tweaked" in the last few days, which I believe was to tell the players to think pass first on the drive, rather than shot first, as is traditional for the Dribble Drive Motion offense and similar offenses constructed on rim attacks.
The LSU Tigers gave a game effort, and in most respects, an impressive one. They made a huge comeback early in the second half, but that push fell an Alex Poythress 3-pointer short of getting them back to even with Kentucky, at which point UK fans would have had a good reason to worry — we have all seen Kentucky surrender big leads before (Ole Miss, Missouri) and wind up in a dogfight at the end. This ended like most comebacks do, with LSU running out of gas and Kentucky cruising on to the win.
This was, statistically, a complete game for Kentucky. They won every one of the four factors, three convincingly, and that speaks to the balance of the performance Kentucky put on last night. There is really not much to criticize in this performance other than the fact that it has been so rare this season — in fact, this might be the first of it's kind all year.
The passing on dribble penetration was notably better, and responsible for the increased assists you see there. Kentucky averages 46% assists per made field goal. Last night they were 58% assists per made field goal. Forget the raw numbers, percentages are what matter.
Another of my keys, turnovers, was critical to the team's success last night. The Wildcats had only 13% turnovers and wound up with an offensive efficiency of almost 121 points per 100 possessions — the eighth-best OE of the year for Kentucky, and third best against an SEC opponent all year.
Kentucky's defense was solid, but not spectacular on paper. In the game, it looked much better because of all the blocks, but LSU has never been a particularly efficient offensive team.
Julius Randle should be forbidden from inbounding the ball again, ever. I don't think this requires any exposition.
Off the ball movement was better, but still not great.
Free throw shooting was down, and that needs to change. To be fair, though, it wasn't horrible at 63%. But in a closer game, those extra three points (70% is my "good" threshold) matter.
Great performance from the perimeter. Kentucky made seven threes in only 17 attempts. Kentucky should be shooting about 25% 3-pointers. This team can shoot that shot, and they need to. It really helps unclog the lanes.
Kentucky crushed LSU on the offensive glass. I would have taken just a solid victory.
28% blocks is an amazing stat. Kentucky even had a decent number of steals.
Andrew Harrison gets the game ball. Eight assists is a season high for the Kentucky point guard, and keeping in mind the correlation-causation caution, it's fair to say that this could have been the difference between beautiful basketball and the DDFH. On the downside, he had three turnovers, but he made up for those with two steals and a block. I was tempted to give the whole team the game ball, but honestly, Andrew's eight assists really stood out to me as extraordinary.
Aaron Harrison had a fine game. He shot a good percentage from everywhere but the free throw line, where he missed four of five. I thought Aaron defended extremely well.
James Young was a strong contender for the game ball also. He shot the ball well, and probably had his best defensive game of the year. He also chipped in 4 assists and six rebounds.
Julius Randle continues to struggle to make close-in shots, and if he ever gets that fixed, look out. He shot an extremely poor percentage from the floor and from the line, but he had a beastly 16 rebounds and yet another double-double. He only had 1 turnover, an outstanding number for him.
Dakari Johnson came within one point of a double-double himself. He was almost as beastly as Randle on the glass, and shot a much better percentage from the floor. Three blocks are the cherry on top of yet another solid performance from the Wildcats big man, who is really coming on late.
Wilie Cauley-Stein was also in the game ball conversation. Six blocks against a team the size of LSU is not just notable, it's fantastic. He also was an offensive threat, ran the floor well, and was the best defensive player on the floor in all aspects by a mile.
Alex Poythress was in foul trouble the whole game, and had fumble-fingers. He turned the ball over three times in 20 minutes, and I think that is actually generous. But he made a huge 3-point shot that stopped the LSU run cold, and a couple of critical free throws. He only had two rebounds, though, which is not really Alex-like.
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood both played, but neither of them impacted the box score. Kentucky needed both of them, though, with the foul trouble.
Tying it all up
This was an outstanding game for Kentucky, and could be (and let me stress "could") the beginning of a run. This team is absolutely due, and the late-season slump that has driven us collectively mad over the last month seems to have finally run its course. If they can reprise this performance with another good game against the Georgia Bulldogs, my estimation of the Wildcats' post-season chances will escalate measurably.
The most positive thing about this performance are the things that could have been so much better, and that's scary. Free throw shooting, close to the basket percentage and turnovers could have all been better. If they do get better, this Wildcats team is going to be a considerable threat to the higher seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let's just realize that this is a step, not necessarily a quantum leap, in the right direction. Consistency is what wins, and games like this are often just a blip on the radar for teams that have had struggles in the season. The best teams are consistent, and Kentucky has been anything but.
Still, I am hopeful, probably more due to my nature than any rational cognitive process. The team looked good, and more importantly, purposefully good, not just the beneficiary of hot shooting or an opponent meltdown. As I said, hope.