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Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats Are Improving, But Do They Have What It Takes?

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This year's Kentucky Wildcats have been a real adventure so far, but for the most part, they have accomplished about what most Kentucky fans would have expected.  But does Kentucky have what it takes to make a deep run in March?

At this point, I think the jury is still out.  Despite the fact that Kentucky has dropped a couple of games to quality opponents, the Wildcats have moved to #5 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and the rankings as well.  These two rankings are largely performance-based rather than perception-based. Kentucky also sits at #6 in the RPI.

While I think most UK fans have significant doubts about this team, especially with respect to the front line, for a freshman-dominated team they have been surprisingly successful so far.  With the exception of the beat-down in Maui by the Connecticut Huskies, there have been virtually no surprises out of this team in terms of results.  The loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels was disappointing, but not unexpected considering the youth of the team and the hostile environment.  Yesterday's difficult game versus the Indiana Hoosiers just underlines the intensity that this team must learn to bring to every game, especially in rivalry games.

But do the Wildcats have what it takes to go far when it counts?  Can we expect to see Kentucky at the top of the SEC this year, or will the somewhat surprising Tennessee Volunteers be the best team in the league?  We'll look at that more in depth after the jump.

Every Kentucky fan knows that the Wildcats currently have a problem with two things -- size and depth.  Kentucky is athletic and fairly long, but they are also smallish on the front line and lack enough big people to sustain a lot of fouls.  Also, quality depth seems to be limited on this year's team in the backcourt as well as the front court.  The result is that Kentucky can only sustain 15-18 team fouls before really bad things start to happen, as we saw in the North Carolina game and almost got a look at yesterday versus the Hoosiers.

What we are starting to see is some emerging trends for this Kentucky team, which is doing some things well and some things poorly  The things we are doing well:

  • These kids have a lot of heart and don't give up.  When the game gets tough, it tends to bring out the competitiveness in these young men even more.
  • This team is getting better.  The last two games have seen UK's FTR% and OR% increase.  These two stats are the ones that I was most worried about with this team.
  • Brandon Knight has still yet to reach anything close to his potential leading this team, but he is trying and making some progress.  Imagine how good we can be when he finally "gets it."
  • Josh Harrellson is beginning to show signs that he can be a major factor on this team's success just by doing the little things.  Every extra thing he can do from now on will be magnified.  How big was his offensive game yesterday?
  • Free throw % is improving, and it was a big reason we won the game yesterday.
  • Ballhandling is outstanding.  This team allows only 6% steals and 15.5% turnovers.
  • The defense has a lot of room for improvement, but it is surprisingly efficient.  I'm at a loss as to why, I have not really seen the kind of outstanding defensive games I had expected out of this team.  One thing is that UK is fairly disciplined at guarding the 3, even though that often leads to back-cuts and easy 2's.

The things we need to do better:

  • The lack of depth is affecting how Kentucky plays defense, and even offense at times.  The Wildcats have to find a way to manage this better.
  • Brandon Knight is not running this team correctly.  He is too often calling an "audible" and taking it all on himself.  That's got to stop.
  • Terrence Jones is still inconsistent.  Did you notice how poor his body language was yesterday?  Compare that with what we saw from him in the UW, OU and Boston games.  He has to bring that every game.
  • FG% is declining.  This is probably due to the fact that so much of our offense comes from 3-point shots and FTAs, but this number does need to improve.
  • Defensive steals % is still too low, although it seems to be moving in the right direction.  I do understand that our depth is a major factor in this statistic.
  • Assists per made field goal is 304th out of 345 teams.  That needs to improve a lot.
  • Kentucky does not force enough turnovers overall.  This is probably due to the fact that the team is so shallow, we have to be less aggressive on defense.  Still, the 'Cats have to find a way to force more turnovers.  Kentucky is currently forcing 17% turnovers.  The top teams are forcing over 20%.  I'm not sure if Kentucky can be a Final Four team at this level.
  • Darius Miller is currently used on only 16% of possessions.  That needs to go up to at least 20%, and he is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum right now.  Liggins usage at 16% is about right for his game, which is more defense first, but he could make himself more of a scoring threat.
  • This team is going to have to learn how to play some zone, and that is going to make rebounding more problematic.  Fouls are becoming an issue in every game, and every opponent is going to try to get into our bench, just like IU and North Carolina did.
  • When was the last time UK took a charge?  Last year, Cousins himself took more than the whole team has this year.  If Cousins can take charges, why can't Jones and Harrellson?

Coach Calipari understands this team is far from where we need to be, but the good news is, we do have time to get there.  That being said, there are some things the 'Cats are doing wrong at this point that should be mostly fixed by now, like Brandon Knight's tendency to throw the playbook in the dustbin and set sail for the goal or fire a jumpshot.  We all know the kid is good, but by this time last year, John Wall was figuring out how to get the team involved, and Knight is still failing to do that all too often.

Jones' mood swings are also really troubling.  It's like he just comes into some games not feeling like playing.  Basketball isn't like making love -- you can't just wait for the mood to strike you.  You have to bring it every single game, and Jones does not seem to get that.

The only player who brings it every single game, for good or ill, is Harrellson.  Sometimes he makes mistakes, but his intensity level has been there every game.  Calipari says he needs to improve 5% execution-wise, and if he can do that, I think we will be getting more out of Josh than anyone ever expected.

Eloy Vargas must improve a lot.  I am hoping he will, and he has shown a sign or two, but he still has a long way to go.  He has size, and that's something.  If he can just find a way to commit himself like Harrellson has to one aspect of the game, the others will come to him eventually. 

Liggins did it that way also -- he committed to defense and lo and behold, everything else came along in due time.  Now, Liggins needs to dedicate himself to better rebounding like he did yesterday.  If Liggins can get 6-10 rebounds per game, he can really help our team.

Calipari was frustrated with the team's performance yesterday, and I know most Kentucky fans were also.  Yes, they stepped on the gas late, but most of the time, the way UK played yesterday is a recipe for defeat.  Some players did well, but the overall team performance was not very good.  The good news is, if UK can win games shooting a poor percentage and generally playing poorly, they have a chance to be really great if they can learn to bring the intensity and execution up to the level which they are capable.

Does this team have what it takes?  Maybe not.  Maybe our depth is too big an issue to overcome.  Maybe Harrellson and an occasional Vargas is just not enough.  Maybe our lack of size and post presence just cannot be overcome.  Maybe the talent on this team is just too young.

But I am not copping to that yet, and neither should you.