I have long railed against the "style points" argument for UK basketball. There is a theory that a win is a win, especially in big or rivalry games. But at some point, it's not just about style, but about giving yourself chances to win.
Were it not for an impressive team defense in a grind-it-out 59-54 win over Indiana (5-3) today at Rupp Arena, Kentucky (6-3) might have had to prepare for next week's intra-state game against Louisville with a loss hanging over their heads. But they didn't, and a stout defense deserves the credit.
The Wildcats held IU to 31% from the floor, the third time in four games they have held the opponent to under 32% shooting. The only quibble I have with the team's defense right now is the lack of forcing turnovers, something the Tubby Smith ball-line defense thrives on, and something that (theoretically) allows for more easy buckets in transition.
But with this group right now, there's no such thing as an easy bucket. While the Cats shot 45% for the game, they hit 1 three-pointer in 11 attempts, and none in the second half. Additionally, Tubby's "live with the ball" manuever lowered the turnovers not at all, as the Cats reached their 17-per-game average exactly.
But, bear in mind that this examination comes after a victory, and against a better-than-their-record Hoosiers team, I believe. Indiana's losses coming in were to a pair of ranked teams, Butler and Duke. And htey were nipped in both of those contests after leading late.
Once again, the offensive hero was burgeoning All-American center Randolph Morris, who has effectively shed both his underachiever mantle and his non-rebounding one. Morris posted a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds, along with 4 big blocks. But for long stretches of the second half, the Cats again couldn't seem to find Morris in the post. And when they did, at a critical juncture with the game knotted at 47 all, Morris delivered a picture-perfect fadeaway over Indiana's DJ White (23 pts./9 reb./4 bl.) and got the foul.
Had the stagnant offensive display been a result of stifling Indiana defense, the UK faithful might be a lot less cranky after a big win. But the Cats in addition to the 17 turnovers were outrebounded by 3 overall, but by 12 on the offensive glass. Cut that number in half, and maybe you aren't sweating so much.
All in all, this was a gritty win, and one I'm proud the Cats pulled out. It was, frankly, must-win time to keep the heat down and the movement forward. But the frustrating habit these guys have of unlearning lessons and making the same mistakes over and over is maddening. And it's not just the freshmen.
A win is a win, for sure. And over Indiana, all that much sweeter. If UK can get past a young, green U of L next Saturday, they would enter the Holiday Cupcakes portion of the schedule at 7-3 with wins over at least two probable NCAA teams (IU, UL) and a big maybe in Depaul.
In a tougher SEC, fixing these offensive struggles and miscues will stop being a nuisance and start being live or die.
SoB Free throws
* Despite some OK numbers, it was telling how much trouble freshman Perry Stevenson had in this game on defense. While I'm not sure Thomas is the better option, it is clear that Stevenson has a long way to go to reach a consistent, and reliable, level of play on both ends.