All of us want to be convinced, somehow, that the Kentucky Wildcats’ victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores last night was the beginning of a turn-around in Kentucky’s fortunes. That is certainly a possibility.
As my colleague Greg Edwards pointed out in his most recent article, the SEC regular-season championship is not out of Kentucky’s reach, not completely. The Wildcats do not control their own destiny, of course, and need significant help to even get a shot at a piece of the title.
Coming away from last night’s game we saw some things that are very encouraging, namely:
A Ryan Harrow that looked miles better than the tentative, frightened kid we saw against Florida and Tennessee;
A Willie Cauley-Stein we have never seen before offensively. WCS has never scored 20 points before, has taken as many as 10 shots only once before. He did all that last night and made big plays on defense as well;
An Archie Goodwin that we can not only live with, but embrace;
A turnover percentage that will give UK a chance to win if they can keep it up;
A nice level of team energy and self-possession throughout most of the game.
Those are the good things, and I’m as happy to see them as you are. But there are some things that give me cause for concern:
The last 4 games, Kentucky’s defensive efficiency has been an uncomfortable 1+ points per possession. Last night’s game was by far the worst defensive game, efficiency wise, Kentucky has won this year. In fact, it is the only game with a DE of 1.1 or greater that UK has won this year.
Kentucky collected a disappointing 34% offensive rebounds. Yes, that was better than Vanderbilt, but in the last two games without Noel, Kentucky’s rebounding has not been very good, and Vanderbilt is the 4th-worst offensive rebounding team in the SEC;
A return of the long drought. Kentucky had a 4-minute stretch in the second half where it didn’t score a point. In that stretch, Vandy went from 12 down to 3 down.
Missouri is much better than Vanderbilt, but statistically, they aren’t much better than Kentucky, except defensively. Kentucky’s defensive stats are colored by the back-to-back blowout losses to Tennessee and Florida, and without those, the Wildcats don’t look quite as bad. But remember, all the pre-Florida stats included a healthy Nerlens Noel.
Kentucky cannot afford to play the Tigers as badly on defense as they played the Commodores. Missouri isn’t scary offensively, but they can score from inside and out, and with Bowers back healthy, they are probably a better offensive team than their statistics indicate.
Bottom line: Missouri is a better offensive team than their stats indicate, and Kentucky is possibly an even worse defensive team than their stats indicate. That’s not what you want coming into a game.
On the other hand, Kentucky is still learning how to play without Noel, and I doubt that we’ve seen their best defensive game yet. We’re going to have to hope the offense stays efficient, because if it doesn’t, it’s looking mighty tough against Mizzou.
Can Kentucky weather a loss against Missouri at home? Yes, but it requires a Florida upset or a trip to the SEC Tournament finals. That’s how I have it figured.
Missouri represents Kentucky’s last, best chance to close the deal with the NCAA Tournament selection committee. This is a chance for this young team to demonstrate it’s quality of basketball character. Their talent has never really been in dispute.