It was not pleasing to the eye. It was not what most Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans were expecting, but Monday night's 68-61 escape from the grasp of talented and scrappy Cleveland State is what 'Cat fans occasionally have to endure as they witness the maturation of John Calipari's latest freshmen-laden squad.
Head coach Gary Waters and his CSU Vikings, though, deserve credit for bringing the fight to UK. The visitors were absolutely not intimidated by the stage, the 'Cats, or the presence of Ashley Judd in the stands. Waters' ball club played with great poise, and for a time, baffled Kentucky by switching defenses from man-to-man, to a 2-3 zone, to a 2-2 zone with a James Young chaser, with a dollop of 3-2 zone thrown in for good measure. And the Vikings nearly pulled off the upset of the season without their starting point guard, and second leading scorer, Charlie Lee, who connects on 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The 'Cats, though, responded late in the game to CSU's surge, and pulled out their fifth win of the young season.
Team Superlatives and Disappointments
- Kentucky displayed marked improvement from the charity stripe by making 27-of-35 from the line (77.1 percent). Julius Randle (9-11), James Young (2-2) and Alex Poythress (2-2) were all deadly from the stripe.
- UK's three starting guards, the Harrison twins and Young, combined to make only 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. The 'Cats' 3-point shooting has been streaky, and it's an area that must stabilize if Kentucky is to live up to its current No. 3 national ranking. The more accurate the 'Cats are from distance, the more room Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and the other UK big men will have to cause damage around the basket. Otherwise, zone defenses will clog the middle, making life difficult for the inside players, and putting a halt to the dangerous dribble drive offense.
- Kentucky, the lengthiest team in the history of NCAA basketball (well, maybe not the longest team, but definitely one of the longest), only out-rebounded CSU 22-20 in the first half. If nothing else, this stat shows UK's lack of focus in the opening stanza as well as a lack of respect for its opponent.
- UK connected on only 26.9 percent of its first half shots, good for seven made first half field goals. Seven. Yikes!
- The 'Cats grabbed 18 offensive rebounds on 34 missed shots, continuing a Wildcat trend of crashing the offensive boards, but ...
- CSU outscored Kentucky in second chance points, 18-17 (no commentary necessary).
- UK recorded two steals. Two. Now that's an ugly number. Conversely, CSU had seven thefts.
- The 'Cats handed out a dismal 10 assists, but made merely 19 baskets. A slightly above 50.0 percent assist rate is normally not satisfactory, but on this night, I, and most other 'Cat fans, will take it.
- Kentucky had only 11 turnovers in the game, four in the second half. The 'Cats are becoming more intelligent when the ball is in their hands, and it's showing in the turnover department.
- CSU's Bryn Forbes and Trey Lewis, the Vikings most dangerous offensive weapons, scored a total of 37 points, but took a combined 30 shots. Both Forbes and Lewis were well-defended for most of the night -- except for a few times when the UK defender found himself hung up in a screen -- particularly in the final 30 minutes of the game.
Individual Superlatives and Disappointments
- Julius Randle recorded his sixth consecutive double-double, posting 15 points and 15 rebounds (seven offensive). Randle made only 3-of-10 shots from the floor, but the big fella had several shots unluckily rim out, and for most of the night performed quite well on the offensive end ... except for his five turnovers. The thought of Randle dribbling the ball in traffic surely keeps John Calipari from getting a solid night's sleep. Randle, though, assisted on one of the biggest baskets of the night, as he found Aaron Harrison open in the corner for a 3-pointer with just under a minute-and-a-half remaining.
- James Young was at times very energetic and active on both ends of the floor, at other times he seemed almost uninterested, rendering a lack of consistency and interest, both defensively and offensively, as Young's biggest bugaboo at the moment. Because of that, his play was a microcosm of the UK squad as a whole, something that will hopefully begin to dissipate as time flies by. Young ended the game with nine points on 3-of-11 shooting (1-4 from distance), five rebounds, three dimes and three turns.
- Andrew Harrison was also a study in inconsistency. At times, Harrison ran the ball club quite efficiently, getting everyone involved, leading the break and finding the open man (Harrison had five assists to only one turnover), while at other times, particularly on defense, he seemed a bit laterally slow; perhaps one of the reasons Harrison fouled out of the game. UK's point guard did, though, play a key role in the 'Cats culminating their comeback -- In a span of just over a minute-and-a-half (4:58 to the 3:22 mark of the second half), Harrison lobbed to Cauley-Stein for a dunk, bringing UK to within three points of CSU; made a layup while being fouled, his free throw tying the contest at 54; and assisted Young on a mid-range jumper, putting the 'Cats up 56-54. Harrison ended the game with 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting in 21 minutes of action (4-of-5 from inside the arc).
- Willie Cauley-Stein finished the game with 11 points, four rebounds, four blocks, and UK's only two steals. WCS was active both offensively and defensively, playing one of his better games this season. Connecting on 5-of-7 from the charity stripe, WCS seemed comfortable and confident as he twirled the ball at the line, preparing to shoot. Something I didn't think I would witness in my lifetime. He is now making 56.5 percent of his free throws on the season, an over-20 percentage point improvement over last season.
- Aaron Harrison made only one 3-point shot on the night, but it was a big one -- With the 'Cats clinging to a tenuous 60-57 lead with 1:20 remaining, Harrison rose up from the deep corner and ripped the bottom out of the sack, propelling UK to a six point advantage, creating a bit of Big Blue breathing room.
- Alex Poythress played only 15 minutes, but grabbed seven rebounds (three offensive), and blocked one shot.
- Dominique Hawkins played 14 minutes, and brought his usual energy and defensive tenacity to Cawood's Court. Hawkins scored only one point and committed three fouls, but his hustle and dedication to defense (even if he does occasionally make mistakes in judgement) are contagious.
- Dakari Johnson played only seven minutes (thanks to Cauley-Stein's strong game), grabbing two rebounds.
- Marcus Lee earned another starting nod, but played only four minutes, grabbing two rebounds and scoring one point. Lee found himself in Calipari's dog house early, and was never able to get unleashed.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!