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Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Tigers: Postmortem

Yes, there was not much pretty basketball happening last night in Auburn, Alabama, but an SEC road win is always something to cherish.

Julius Randle getting a man's rebound.
Julius Randle getting a man's rebound.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It's amazing how different a game looks 8 hours after the fact, when you've had time to cool your jets a bit and rationality returns. That's one reason I have taken to doing the real analysis some time after the game has ended. It helps me clear the emotional cruft from my mind.

First of all, let's give the Auburn Tigers a hand for the way they played. They knew a couple of things coming in — one, that they were not talented enough to play Kentucky's game, and two, they had to find a way to make the game a fistfight, because those kinds of games cause freshmen to quail. So they crafted a game plan of low possessions and low scoring. High scoring games generally favor the more talented team. They still lost, but they were in the game all the way, and their effort was impressive.

None of this reflects badly on Kentucky. This game was more about what Auburn did well than what Kentucky did poorly. They did exactly the same thing to the Florida Gators, and I'm forced to ask those of you who have been busily pulling out your hair over this game why it's okay for Auburn to give Florida a good tooth-drilling and not Kentucky? Keep in mind that Florida fields a truly veteran team, and Kentucky five freshmen.

Having said that, Kentucky did not play their best game last night, and I think that's obvious to everyone. We all surely know, however, that you can't play your best every night, and also that if we learned nothing else from prior young teams, we saw that none of them tend to play well on the road. We saw the continuation of this trend at Auburn, but we also saw a Kentucky team that, despite its difficulties on offense, toughed out the game and won where they easily could have lost. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this Kentucky team only a month ago would have lost this game.

Four factors

Box score for Kentucky

Name Min ORtg %Ps Pts 2PM-A 3PM-A FTM-A OR DR A TO Blk Stl PF
Andrew Harrison 35 102 29 16 1-7 2-3 8-11 3 2 2 4 0 0 3
Aaron Harrison 33 99 18 10 1-5 1-3 5-6 0 1 1 2 0 2 5
James Young 31 74 14 4 0-5 1-5 1-2 3 3 1 0 0 1 2
Julius Randle 30 100 24 12 4-8 0-0 4-8 4 8 0 2 1 0 2
Dakari Johnson 21 117 24 8 4-10 0-0 0-1 7 1 1 0 1 2 1
Willie Cauley-Stein 20 100 18 5 1-4 0-0 3-4 2 4 1 1 1 0 2
Alex Poythress 19 98 21 6 1-4 0-0 4-8 2 5 0 0 0 1 3
Jarrod Polson 11 287 5 3 0-0 1-1 0-0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0

1 2 0

Totals 200

64 12-43 5-12 25-40 22 27 7 9 3 6 18
Advanced Stats

1.07 0.279 0.417 0.625 0.512 0.643 0.412 0.15 0.077 0.1

Courtesy of

Team observations

  • Kentucky did not play well offensively in this game, but as I said, that had as much to do with Auburn as it did UK. Calipari has not spent near enough time on pack-line man-to-man defenses. Kentucky struggled to get drives to the hoop, and I blame Calipari as much as the team. Practice against that more, it's obvious to me that they haven't got it yet. I think Cal was expecting zone, and there was not much of that last night from the Tigers.

  • Transition defense was much improved, maybe the best it's been all year. I can only think of two times that Auburn successfully got into transition. You see, when you concentrate on something in practice, it gets better. See just above.

  • You think free throw shooting was lousy, but in reality, it was just bad. We need to make 65%+, and we only made 63%. Alex Poythress and Julius Randle were the primary culprits.

  • 3-point shooting was good, but 12 attempts probably helped feed the Auburn defense, because if a team doesn't think you'll shoot it out there, they will pack the defense in even more, and Auburn did. UK only took 21% of their shots from 3, and probably needs to take more like 27 or 28%. I know Calipari wants to drive it more, and he should, but I think Kentucky found the point of diminishing returns last night.

  • Kentucky did exactly what they should have done when it comes to getting to the line and rebounding. Look at the OR and FTR numbers. Stratospheric. That's why Kentucky won, BUT... here's one negative observation I will make regarding the defensive rebounding numbers; 64% defensive rebounding while yielding 36% ORs to Auburn isn't good enough. Yeah, UK almost doubled them up in OR%, but the effort needs to be consistent on both sides of the ball.

  • Having said all the above, did you notice how well Kentucky blocked out? Several possessions saw the rebound hit the ground with no Auburn player near. You can see the improvement in this team in the areas that they concentrate on in practice.

  • There were a lot of missed layups in this game. Yes, Auburn contested them, but Kentucky must learn to finish through contact at the rim. You can't let the officiating or the other team make you miss a chippie.

  • I loved the toughness we saw in the team last night despite the physical challenge. Last year's team would have lost this game even with Nerlens Noel — not tough enough. Have you noticed that "toughness" no longer gets thrown out there very often by Calipari in the post-game? Unfortunately, effort does get mentioned, and we saw a bit of why last night. The effort was inconsistent, and just as Calipari said in his post-game remarks, Kentucky lets their offensive performance affect their overall game.

  • Another good, low-turnover game. Kentucky needs to stop with the long, habit passes that Chris Denson picked off twice for layups. There's no excuse for that; just stop.

  • I saw some complaints about assists in the post-game thread. Kentucky had assists on 41% of their baskets — a good number. This points up the danger of looking at raw totals and trying to draw conclusions. Kentucky had only 17 made baskets the whole game.

  • Kentucky's eFG% was 35.5, the worst all season. And yet they won.

Individual observations

  • Julius Randle was a beast in the second half. He did everything Calipari wanted, and dominated the glass for a double-double. He gets the game ball. His biggest negatives were disappearing in the first half and missing four of eight free throws, but he only had two turnovers — a great number for him.

  • Dakari Johnson was a close runner-up. I understand some will want him to get it again, but he missed too many layups for me to be happy. When you shoot the ball as close to the basket as Dakari does and miss six of your ten attempts, that's just no good at all. But Johnson has shown a lot of leadership lately in the effort area, and that makes up for a lot.

  • Andrew Harrison made some plays. It's hard to love one of seven shooting from two, but he made some big plays through contact down the stretch, and made his free throws. The four turnovers to two assists uglify his line.

  • Aaron Harrison had to deal with Denson all night, and it showed in his offense. This was not a great game for him, but he did make free throws.

  • James Young was almost invisible this whole game I really don't have much else to say about him.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein had an okay game. He made his free throws, and that's always a good thing. Six rebounds in 19 minutes isn't awful.

  • Alex Poythress was good and bad last night. He played hard defensively, and well, for the most part, but he missed half his free throws and he shot a bunch of them. Can't complain about his rebounding, but we need a little more from him offensively than we got last night.

  • Jarrod Polson played a good game and made a timely 3-point shot that help get Kentucky back into the lead after they lost it in the early part of the second half.

I know that most of the Big Blue Nation find this performance displeasing, and for a fact it was offensive to the eyes. Keep in mind, though, that teams like Auburn — under-talented and not particularly deep — need to try to muck up games to give themselves the best chance to eke out a victory. They did that surpassingly well last night, and Kentucky simply could not get themselves out of it.

I am not the least bit worried about the Auburn game showing up in the next one. Florida will play Florida's style, and they don't need to worry about a severe talent and size deficit like the Tigers did. There were a number of things that Kentucky did well in this game, including defense, rebounding, and getting to the line. Those things were the difference in the Auburn game, and will be the difference in the Florida game if they do them as well, although they are likely to need to put the ball in the basket more against the Gators. The Wildcats did not shoot it well, but that's going to happen — it happens every year with every team.

So take heart, dear Kentucky fan, and enjoy this road win.