The primary objective of any college basketball coach is to have his team playing their best basketball in March, the month that matters most. At Kentucky, where banners are held in the highest esteem, that objective is magnified by the fanaticism of a fan base thirsting for the program's 14th Final Four; a final week of the season celebration not experienced in the Commonwealth since the heady salad days of the 1990's.
This year, the expectations are no different in the Bluegrass. Regardless of the historical youth of this Kentucky team, fans, coaches, and players alike aspire to reach that magical place called Houston, where the elite will battle for the right to be called National Champions. Something that not so long ago seemed as far-fetched as John Calipari and Rick Pitino sharing a bowl of penne pasta at Porcini's.
But my, how the worm has turned for these 'Cats. From the unpleasant, early-season Maui beat-down at the hands of the UConn Huskies and their All-America guard Kemba Walker, to the inexplicable road losses to the (at the time 1-5) Ole Miss Rebels and the struggling Arkansas Razorbacks, this team befuddled (while at times bedazzling), frustrated, and just plain exhausted the already Olsen twin-thin patience of those who proclaim Big Blue as their team to beat. Lately, though, these 'Cats seemed to have experienced a metamorphosis of sorts, and just in the nick of time.
- Since giving up 77 points at Arkansas on February 23, which ended a streak of UK giving up 70+ points in five of seven contests, the 'Cats, in their last six games, are allowing only 61.7 points per game. In that string of games, UK has allowed only .95 points per possession to Tennessee, .96 points per possession to Ole Miss, and perhaps most impressive, only .92 points per possession to the Florida Gators in Sunday's SEC Tournament championship game -- Like so many teams before them, light bulb illumination begins with defense.
- Since Florida made eight of 19 three-pointers (42.1%) in their loss to UK in Lexington five games ago, the 'Cats have allowed only 24 of 83 long-bombs to ring true (28.9%), which is well below their season three-point defense of 33.2%.
- Since giving up 40.0%+ field goal shooting to five straight opponents from February 1 to the 15th, UK has allowed only three of their last eight foes to make over 40.0% of their shots from the floor, while giving up an average of 39.2% accuracy overall in those eight contests (183-467).
- Offensively, Kentucky has been relatively strong all year, but since the 'Cats loss to Florida 12 games ago (a contest in which UK scored 1.05 points per possession), UK as surpassed 1.13 points per possession on eight occasions, and an outstanding 1.20 points per possession five times.
- Since UK's overtime loss at Arkansas seven games ago, a setback in which Kentucky made only three of 19 trifecta attempts, the Wildcats have been en fuego from long-range, making 37 of 92 from beyond the arc (40.2%).
- Darius Miller leads the 'Cats in the most (emphatically) improved player category -- Over his last nine games, the Maysville native has averaged 15.4 points per game; through the first 24 games of the year, Miller put up 9.7 points per contest. In that same nine game span, Miller made 50 of 85 shots from the field (good for a terrific 58.8 field goal percentage), and an incredible 50.0% of his three-point tries (20-40). Compare those numbers to his first 24 games of the season, when Miller made 45.0% of his shots from the field, and a strong 43.7% of his long-range attempts. Miller is also asserting himself more on the glass -- After averaging 4.6 boards per game through his first 25 games, Miller snagged 5.4 rebounds per contest over the eight games.
- UK's floor general, Brandon Knight, as good as he's been all season, has stepped-up his production over the last few weeks -- The first 24 games of the year, Knight dished out 88 assists and committed 81 turnovers (3.7 apg/3.1 tpg). In the last nine games, Knight has handed-out 49 dimes to only 22 turnovers (5.4 apg/2.4 tpg). Witness: Freakishly talented freshman point guard becoming freakishly talented seasoned point guard.
- Josh Harrellson, UK's own "big white kid," has also gotten in on the (improving) act -- Through Kentucky's first 26 games, Harrellson averaged 6.4 points per game and scored in double-figures six times. Over his last seven games, Harrellson is averaging 8.1 points per game and he's scored in double-digits three times. Also, in his last 12 games, Jorts in making 62.0% of his shots from the floor (44-71); in his first 21 games of the season Harrellson made 56.1% of his attempts (55-98). Ever the great rebounder, Harrellson has improved on even that stat -- In the last seven games, he's grabbing 9.3 boards per contest; through the first 26 games of the year Harrellson snagged 8.6 rebounds per game.
- Defensive ace DeAndre Liggins, never a consistent scoring threat, has also upped the ante (in a big way) on the offensive end -- In the last eight games, Ligs has made 52.9% of his shots (27-51), compared to his less-than-stellar 39.4% shooting through the first 25 games (71-180). Furthermore, Liggins has become deadly from range, making eight of 13 three-point attempts over the last eight games (61.5%), after making only 34.9% the first 25 games of the season (22-63). Liggins, like Miller and Harrellson, is also hitting the glass with a purpose, snagging 6.5 rebounds per game over the last four contests, after averaging 3.7 boards per game through the first 29 games.
- Doron Lamb, rock-solid all season, has picked-up his shooting recently, also -- In his last six games, Lamb has made 51.0% of his overall field goal tries (26-51), and 50.0% of his three-point attempts. Through his first 27 games, Lamb made 49.8% of his floor shots (120-241), and 46.8% of his three-point attempts (51-109) -- Improving on greatness ... that's how one becomes legendary.
- Although Terrence Jones has seen his shooting percentage and points per game drop over the last eight games, he has not allowed that trend to adversely effect his rebounding -- Over the last 11 games, Jones is averaging 9.0 rebounds per game and 2.9 offensive boards per contest. Through his first 22 games, Jones averaged 8.9 rebounds per game, with 2.4 being offensive.
- And finally, the much-maligned Eloy Vargas is beginning to show signs of marked improvement -- Over his last 45 minutes of action (covering nine games), Vargas has produced the following numbers: Nine-points, 12 rebounds (seven offensive!), four blocks, one steal, and one turnover; he made five of eight free throws and two of three shots from the field -- Not bad big fella, not bad at all.
I Love it When a Plan Comes Together
All season long John Calipari has been singing the same song to his painfully young team -- Make better decisions, focus on each possession, be strong with the ball, win the execution game, win every loose ball, win every rebound, and play to win every game. At times, the team faltered, costing them precious wins, and at times, Calipari seemed to be at wits end in dealing with his charges, but like raising a child from the crib, consistently sending the same message will most times result in a positive outcome. And so it has been with this edition of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Credit, though, is a two-way street. For the players are the ones who have worked and learned; the players have played through the screaming and ranting of their head coach, and listened instead to what he was telling them. They have grown and matured into a squad capable of beating any team they face (and that includes the big, bad Buckeyes of Ohio State), which is all any coach or fan can ask.
Only three or four short weeks ago this team seemed destined for an early exit in the NCAA tourney, but now, the question that begs to be asked is -- Regardless of a short bench, will this team shock and awe the Commonwealth with an appearance in the Final Four? While I certainly do not have the answer to that question, I do know this is a Wildcat team the Kentucky faithful can be proud of, because they have worked and fought with passion and heart in representing the greatest tradition in college basketball. And most importantly, along the way they've gotten better, and have given themselves the opportunity to make history.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!