These guys are such a tease.
For 7 1/2 minutes on Wednesday night, UK fans saw the best this team has to offer. Tight defense, strong ball movement and crisp shooting had the home team rolling as the Cats roared out to a 12-point edge. But over the next seven minutes, Kentucky (11-3) squandered its margin, the Houston Cougars slowly chipping away until they trailed by only one point, 31-30.
When all was said and done, Kentucky withstood its worst shooting outing of the season (39%) and held off Houston (5-7) for a gritty, if frustrating, 77-70 victory over Houston.
Forced to work around a collapsing zone defense that held star center Randolph Morris to just 10 shots, Kentucky resorted to Houston's game, launching a season-high 30 attempts from behind the arc, hitting just 8.
Morris finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but while he and freshman Derrick Jasper combined for 10-of-16 shooting (63%), their teammates managed just 16-of-50 (32%) on the night. But it was one of those ill-shooting teammates that proved most crucial at game's end.
Freshman bulldog Jodie Meeks pounded the glass, finishing a three-point play after rebounding his own miss to give the Cats some breathing room in a tight finish.
"I owe a lot of it to Coach Smith and his staff. They’ve put me in situations where I’ve been comfortable," Meeks said after the game in a rare freshman interview with the media. "When the coaching staff has confidence in you it helps your own confidence. Coach puts us in there and depends on us to step up."
That Smith relaxed his rules on freshmen not speaking to the cameras tells you a lot about how vital they have been to Kentucky's recent seven-game winning streak.
Jasper, the starting point guard, had his best game since the UCLA game in Maui, scoring 12 points and dishing 6 assists to just 2 turnovers. The pride of Paso Robles is shooting a mind-boggling 83% in his last five games, all wins. In fact, the team has not lost since Tubby inserted Jasper in the starting lineup, shifting Ramel Bradley to the off-guard.
But while the plucky resolve of the freshmen was great, what made this game less than a blast was that such effort was also absolutely necessary. The win, which kept UK undefeated (8-0) at home, showed the good and the ugly, like most of Kentucky's games in this season.
Don't get me confused with the blowhards who simply refuse to see the good in anything a Tubby Smith-coached team does, but this is the sort of game that causes headaches. Poised to control a pesky opponent early, the crispness with which the team played to open the game disappeared, replaced with a deep-three chucking crew not built for such a gameplan.
The attempt at increasing the offensive output is nice, of course. The Cats set season highs for overall attempts (66), three-pointers (30), and, in part because of the crappy shooting, rebounds (51). Plus they had just 10 turnovers, a season low, while dishing out 19 assists.
But when the offense created is to the detriment of the rest of the gameplan, it's not good. And too often over the last few months, after stretches of brilliance several key contributors, juniors Joe Crawford and Bradley plus senior Bobby Perry, have lapsed into moments of terrible decision-making and shot selection. Bradley has the shooter's eye to generally make up for a few bad shots, but Perry and Crawford have not had such luck. This is especially true of Perry, whose regression to past mediocrity is as maddening as it is foreboding.
But this woe and worry isn't too much to overcome. With a string of "winnable" SEC games ahead, only the truly kneejerk would give up on this team now. Not at all surprisingly, some local worry merchants are already taking their shots. The Herald-Leader's Mark Story has already decided to play negative, thank goodness. If only he'd go back to writing football columns no one reads and leave basketball to the big boys.
While the relapses to sloppiness scare even the most diehard optimists, folks like Story who publicly question if this team is no better than the Houstons, EKUs and UMasses on its schedule are so uber-focused on offense and shooting that they tend to neglect that this team stacks up well in many categories. Had this team played defense like last year, this would have been a 10-point loss the way the Cats shot the ball. But despite allowing 11 threes, Kentucky held its ground mostly, holding the Cougars to under 40% shooting, the eighth opponent in nine games to do so.
To paraphrase Mario Cuomo, one of the more eloquent of recent politicos, you play offense in poetry and defend in prose. This team's poetry right now too often resembles the lyrics of the lesser-U2 albums: trying hard but falling short.
But its defense and pluck are workmanlike, sturdy, an unpretentious American novel rather than an exhilarating one by some Latin magical realist. Still, finding a little more verse amidst all the simple sentences would be refreshing.