Last night, the Kentucky Wildcats won a tough, physical, mud-wrestling match with the Kansas State Wildcats in St. Louis to tally their first NCAA Tournament victory since the NCAA Tournament championship game in 2012. That last was very strange to say, and I'm glad I'll never have to say it again.
First, we need to congratulate Kansas St. on a great season. They have a really young team this season by anyone's standards other than Kentucky, and in my opinion, they have nowhere to go but up from here. This was always going to be a difficult game for them because of Kentucky's size and K-State's lack thereof. The purple Wildcats were gritty and tough, but in the end, just could not generate enough offense to overcome Kentucky.
Kentucky played a very ugly statistical game, but let me tell you, I was enthralled by it. The improved passing by this team is impressive, and even though their overall offensive flow is still ... well, pretty offensive to the eye, it was more effective than not. I also appreciated the patience Kentucky showed when looking for the shot, but I must still lament the fact that this is the worst shooting Kentucky team in history from one foot and in.
Kansas State box
Turnovers were what kept this basketball game close. Kentucky had their 4th worst turnover game of the season — almost 25% of Kentucky's possessions wound up as turnovers, and most of them in the half court rather than by the press. UK must clean this up if they are to have any chance against the Wichita State Shockers.
Offensive rebound domination (42% of misses) allowed Kentucky to make up for the turnovers and poor shooting, but that's a dangerous way to play the game. UK got to the line a lot also.
Free throw shooting was just barely OK at 67%. Bad misses late in the game really hurt this stat.
Kentucky still can't make layups, although Randle did a much better job in this game. That and turnovers are going to be our undoing, eventually.
Kentucky played the stingiest defense they have played all season. Part of that was excellent intensity, and part of it was their dominating size and length. This was the 4th best defensive efficiency of the season for the Wildcats.
3-point shooting was relatively poor, and that needs to improve.
42% of Kentucky's missed shots were rebounded. That's a dominant, peerless number.
Kentucky only got whistled for 11 fouls. That's amazing, and it really helped.
Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison share the game ball this time. Both had fantastic games, and Aaron's defense on Marcus Foster was excellent. Randle was unstoppable on the glass, and I've never been more impressed with his defensive effort than last night.
Willie Cauley-Stein is really playing well right now. He needs to make himself more of an offensive threat, but four blocks and four steals is a defensive tour-de-force, and he also had eight rebounds and only one turnover
James Young did not play well. He's an offensive player, and he's expected to put up points, but he was shooting blanks last night. Getting five rebounds helped.
Dakari Johnson had difficulty with everything last night. He had one rebound in 12 minutes.
I thought Alex Poythress played okay. He made a very big three that got Kentucky back on track. Only two rebounds?
Jarrod Polson played only 3 minutes, but did get a rebound.
Tying it all up
Overall, I thought Kentucky struggled yesterday, but they played as a team, they shared the ball, they were patient, poised, and defensive-minded. I'd like to see a little better shooting from everywhere, but many teams have struggled early in the tournament with shooting, and getting past this tough Kansas St. team was really the only check box Kentucky needed to hit yesterday. It was a struggle for both teams, and even though we saw Kentucky's focus waver a time or two, it was good enough.
Next up, we get the #1 seed, the Wichita St. Shockers. Wichita St. is currently undefeated, although they have played only eight teams all year ranked in Ken Pomeroy's top 100, and only one in the KenPom top ten — the Tennessee Volunteers, who they beat in December before they began playing well. Wichita St. is an execution team, very much like the Florida Gators, but with less size and athleticism. They are better shooting team, though, but that's a little hard to rate based on the level of competition they have faced so far.
The Shockers will be tough, but Pomeroy reckons them only 66% to win the game with a spread of only four points. No matter how good they are, they are the Wildcats next opponent, and if Kentucky wants to move on to the Sweet Sixteen, they have to find a way to pull the upset.