The game between the Texas Longhorns and Kentucky Wildcats was a very significant one for college basketball this season for a couple of reasons, and less significant than it should’ve been for a couple more. The main significance of this game was as a test for both teams, to see where they are. Both are ranked highly, and both have remarkable size, strength, and length that has prove troublesome in the extreme for opponents. This game gave us an idea of which one of these teams is better, but it did not settle that question for good and all this season.
[Editor’s note: this is going to be a long postmortem, there is a lot to say. If you don’t have some time, stop now and come back when you do.]
The second significance of this game is that Kentucky is now established as the best team in college basketball. Two wins over top five teams early in the season, along with a top ranking in the pre-season, will get you there. For those who were thinking maybe Louisville or Duke were better, they now have very little leverage for that argument.
Where this game is less significant is in the fact that Texas was not at full strength, and Kentucky was. If the Longhorns had been without Connor Lammert or even Myles Turner, that would’ve been one thing. But to be without your starting sophomore point guard put significant hobbles on their offense. It showed.
Secondly, this game was in Rupp Arena, a notoriously difficult place to play, and it was anything but a convincing win if you watched the whole game. In a neutral arena it might have been different even with Taylor out, although it’s worth noting that when a football-crazy program like Texas plays Kentucky, neutral arenas are generally more mythical than real. The Big Blue Nation is what it is, and it is everywhere. Even Duke, North Carolina and Kansas would likely find a truly neutral site (i.e. one roughly equidistant from all the schools) dominated by Kentucky’s shade of blue.
Neither team shot the ball well, and that will be evinced further below, but this game was never going to be about shooting or even scoring — it was about defense, rebounding, and getting post position. Let’s be honest, when you have two teams as big and strong as this, you are going to have people trying to get good position close to the basket a lot, and this game did not disappoint. Sadly, the officials could not adjust their thinking to the kind of game it was, and made it uglier than it should’ve been.
Noteworthy comments from opposing fans
This will not appear in every postmortem, but this one needs a few noteworthy observations by Texas and other SB Nation sites:
This was big boy basketball, and the refs were calling fouls like they were getting paid by the free throw attempt. — Bitterwhiteguy, Barking Carnival
I was about ready to write this team off for the night halfway through the 2nd half, but they proved me and most of the country wrong by continuing to fight hard. That kind of mental toughness & physical effort will win a lot of games this year. — Bitterwhiteguy, Barking Carnival
…the highlight for me was the entertainment value of watching the Harrison twins thoroughly waste every ounce of natural talent they possess. — Peter Bean, Burnt Orange Nation [Editor’s note - the twins were not very good, more on that later]
Y’think having Zay [Isaiah Taylor] out there for 30 of those perimeter minutes might have made a bit of a difference? Maybe just a little? — Peter Bean, Burnt Orange Nation
With a healthy Isaiah Taylor and a neutral site, the outcome might have been different. — JC25, Barking Carnival
Basically every big was taken out of rhythm other than Willie Cauley-Stein, who made himself some money tonight with a gameball 21 point, 5 rebound, 5 steal, 3 block performance. — JC25, Barking Carnival [Editors note: No doubt the NBA scouts noticed Willie]
This is more about Kentucky than Texas, though. The Wildcats’ pressure defense has been incredible all season, and it got the job done again on Friday night. Kentucky forced Texas into 22 turnovers and contested every attempt with its unmatched length. — Ricky O’Donnell, SB Nation
I’m not sure things are as simple as "Kentucky, Duke, then everybody else," but the Blue Devils certainly eliminated (or at least they should have) all the one-horse race talk on Wednesday — Mike Rutherford, SB Nation [Editor’s note - How about now, Mike?]
For the first time all season, Kentucky got handled on the offensive glass, 32%-46%. That is a big reason why Texas got so close. It’s worth pointing out that ORs were a tale of two halves:
Team 1st half 2nd half UK 12.5% 45.5% Texas 54.2% 23.1%
As you can see, halftime really made a difference on the glass. It is somewhat amazing that Texas did not have a substantial lead at the half. Turnovers were the reason, as they negate offensive rebounding.
Turnovers. Wow. I mean, just wow. I knew, and I told you in the pregame, that Texas was not going to force many turnovers, but for UK to manage under 12% turnovers against a top five team as long and tough as Texas? That’s the stat of the game, and no mistake.
Once again, I draw your attention to the steals stat. Texas is not a great ballhandling team, but they aren’t exactly loathsome. Kentucky made them look awful. This was a Louisville-esque performance when it comes to steals, and Kentucky didn’t do it by getting away with a bunch of fouls, they did it with their quickness and length. Pay attention to this stat, because it is an important reason why Kentucky won. It effectively negated Texas’ advantage on the offensive glass.
Further to my point about steals, Kentucky got six more shots up than Texas. If and when UK ever starts making perimeter shots, that stat will be a major contributor to blowouts.
While I’m singing Kentucky’s praises, it deserves to be noted that the Longhorn defense had a lot to do with Kentucky’s sub-40% eFG.
I warned you in the pregame that if UK did not shoot 35% or better from three, the Wildcats would be inefficient on offense and this game would be a dogfight. This is a serious problem Kentucky must address. It is going to be responsible for a loss if it continues.
Assist rates are still very good. Last night, 57% of Kentucky’s baskets were assisted, and I think it’s worth noting that this happened in spite of the platoon system being essentially defenestrated (mainly due to foul problems). It’s one thing to have high assist rates in each group, but it’s really noteworthy when they are mixed up like that.
This game wasn’t quite as low-possession as I thought. I predicted 60-65, and it turned out to be 67. I think the Longhorns would’ve done better to take more time off, it would’ve given them more energy late — those big guys for not-so-deep Texas were really showing the effects at the end. But whatever.
Willie Cauley-Stein ran away and hid with the game ball. He was singularly outstanding in this game with 21 points on 6-11 shooting (against great size!), 9-12 from the line (!), 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, 5 steals, and as Jay Bilas shamelessly ripped off, a partridge in a pear tree.
Andrew Harrison did not shoot the ball well and he didn’t have a great game, but it was a lot better than his stat line. When evaluating Andrew, my focus is always on assists, because he has a tendency to shoot too much. 4 assists against 1 turnover makes me happy, and even though he made only two shots, one of them kept UK’s longstanding consecutive games with a 3-pointer made streak alive. A minor accolade, to be sure, but worth noting.
Aaron Harrison played awful offensively. He took too many rushed, poor shots and missed almost all of them. He really needs to pick up his game if he wants a chance to be drafted in the NBA, because right now, I wouldn’t take him in the second round. Defensively, he was adequate, but not great.
I thought Alex Poythress was really good. He didn’t do anything especially well except defend, and for me, that’s a big factor. Only two rebounds is disappointing for him, but he had foul trouble.
Karl-Anthony Towns was limited by fouls, but I thought he should’ve played more in the second half. He was okay, although he’s missing too many easy shots. Only 3 rebounds is disappointing. but that four-point outburst in the first half after the flagrant 1 really turned the momentum of the game. He may have been feeling the effects of that hard foul, he really grimaced on the floor after that.
Tyler Ulis was really good, and gets an honorable mention for the game ball. He did what he does, had 4 assists, zero turnovers and 2 steals. He was disruptive on defense and managed the offense carefully and competently.
Trey Lyles had a very poor game. He got beat on defense, fouled a lot, and couldn’t make anything from anywhere. He needs to pick up his game, and he will. This is what we see from freshmen every year — inconsistency. He rebounded a little, though, so that’s something positive worth mentioning.
Dakari Johnson played well. He was 4-5 from the floor, got 6 rebounds, had a couple of assists and a steal. His free throw woes returned, though, and he got to the line a lot.
Devin Booker struggled, I thought. He got beat off the dribble a lot, couldn’t shoot, didn’t rebound. What he did do is distract Texas and force them to stay at home, which is why he played so much, but if he keeps having games like this, he’ll get more open shots for sure.
Marcus Lee didn’t play much. Not sure why, I guess the game was a little too physical for him.
Tying it all up
Overall, I thought Kentucky threw in a clunker in the first half, but really played much harder in the second. I am not surprised to see this, because no matter how much we wish these players lived in a bubble and had no idea what is going on around them, that just isn’t the way it is. They’ve been reading their accolades, and I think some of that showed.
I don’t think I’ve given enough credit to Texas for how hard they played despite having their playmaker on the bench. Imagine if Kentucky had to do with Aaron Harrison at the point rather than Ulis or Andrew — it would be a challenge. Texas played through it and gave themselves a chance to win, and that reflects great credit on them and their players. I hope we play them again at full strength and with more judicious officials.
This was a significant and important milestone for the Wildcats. Beating one top team who may have been slightly overrated early in the season is one thing. Beating two of them, at least one of whom is definitely not overrated is another.
The schedule now spreads out significantly, and the Wildcats play only five games from today until the end of the year. That’s a good thing, because the Wildcats absolutely must do something about their impotent offense, particularly 3-point shooting. Kentucky has two remaining easy games, and three very tough ones against the UCLA Bruins, North Carolina Tar Heels, and of course, the loathsome Louisville Cardinals. Despite the relative dearth of games remaining in this month, the ones that the Wildcats do have are particularly significant.
This was a great win gotten by tough defense and in spite of very poor shooting. It was, as we are used to hearing, an ugly win, but it comes against a team that will not lose many this year to anybody, even in the excellent Big 12. I’m quite pleased, and I know you are as well.