The Kentucky Wildcats prevailed over the Alabama Crimson Tide last night, and that is a very good thing for Kentucky. No, the Wildcats' offensive struggles did not vanish like a ninja in the night, and no, there was no "easy" in this win. It was a grind-it-out game from start to finish, but Alabama very often forces teams, even better teams than Kentucky, to play like that.
Alabama deserves a lot of credit for effort and what I can only describe as grim determination. The Tide have had a year they'd like to forget, despite the outstanding play of Trevor Releford. Personnel losses are the primary culprit, as Alabama lost two likely starters before the season even got underway, and then lost a major role player just a couple of weeks ago. Despite that, they came in to Rupp Arena on senior night and gave a fine account of themselves.
Kentucky continues to labor offensively, and for the last four or five games, it seems like they are in a mud-wrestling match with themselves. The positive is that despite the poor shooting, shot selection was better (although still not great) last night, and the Wildcats notably did not hang their heads when shots didn't fall. That tells me they were back on the right path last night, even if that path may eventually lead to a disappointing season. I'm not sure Kentucky has the time to turn this thing all the way around, but you never know.
Let's move on to the statistics, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy:
Kentucky looked much more relaxed and confident in this game. They moved the ball well, but incorrectly — moving it around the perimeter is not how you beat the zone. Surely we haven't forgotten that. Put Randle at the free throw line, get him the ball, and good things will happen.
I liked that the Wildcats fearlessly shot the three, even though they didn't make many. You have to shoot that shot, and to win, you have to make it. Kentucky made too few last night, but I'd say 75% were good, open shots. If the 'Cats had run the zone offense properly, they could have taken fewer threes and gotten more looks at two.
Free throw shooting is definitely getting better, and it is a season-long trend:
The green line is the trendline, and the dashed red line is the Division I average of 69%. Kentucky is not going to be a great free throw shooting team, but they don't need to be.
I liked how Kentucky defended last night. They are still not a great defensive team, and their on-ball defense is still below where it needs to be, but they were hands high on the perimeter for most of the night. There were lapses late when the team got tired, but that's to be expected. If Kentucky keeps this up, they just might get to be a decent defensive team.
Passing was better tonight, I'd say much better. Kentucky assisted on 56% of their made baskets. That's not super, but it's much better than what we had been seeing.
Turnovers were back as a problem. 21% turnovers will get you beat, and made this game much closer than it should have been.
The officiating went dramatically against Kentucky, to the tune of being directly responsible for at least 4-6 points of the game differential. That's a lot. Still, the Wildcats overcame that, and held their composure much better than recently, even when they were down in the first half.
Offensive efficiency still ... isn't. Less than 1 point/possession at home will usually get you beat.
Defensive rebounding was spectacular. Offensive rebounding was merely excellent. When you get 80% of the available defensive rebounds and 41% of your own rebounds, you are dominating the glass.
If this team learns to shoot straight before the tournament, they are a contender no matter what seed they get.
If Kentucky starts making threes, the twos will become much, much easier.
Dakari Johnson wins the game ball. He worked very hard even when he was beaten, and had no negatives at all other than a couple of missed free throws, one of which went all the way down and came back out. He was terrific, and the only efficient player on the team. His offensive rating was 158. Randle, his main competition was 99.
Julius Randle had a fine game. I still dislike seeing 4-8 shooting from where he takes his shots, and the three turnovers are a definite negative, but he gobbled up rebounds like a starving man presented with a gourmet banquet. Another double-double for the big guy.
James Young shot the ball very poorly at 1-11, but the one he made was huge, and he never hung his head. He also managed to go a game without a single turnover.
Aaron Harrison played fine. He shot poorly, but most of his shots were good looks, he had a slew of rebounds and as many assists as his brother.
Andrew did okay. He ran the team, and he took good shots. I'd like to see more than 3 assists out of him, but he did have a couple of good passes dropped.
Alex Poythress had an off game. Three points and one rebound in 18 minutes is not what we need from him.
Willie Cauley-Stein played well, but he needs to make himself more available in the post. Defensively, he was very good.
Jarrod Polson played a lot of minutes and produced a 3-point shot and three rebounds. Not bad.
Jon Hood hit the first three of the game and fearlessly took three more, although one of them was a really bad look. Great to see Hoodie go out in style.
Tying it all up with a bow
This game is never going to make a UK top ten greatest moments list, but it was of outsized importance when it comes to team confidence. Kentucky needed this win very badly, and that they got it in spite of playing badly on offense is a very good thing.
You also have to credit Kentucky's defense. While Alabama is anything but an offensive juggernaut, they rarely get held to only 0.84 points/possession. That had everything to do with Kentucky's hard work, because most of Alabama's looks were strongly challenged.
Next up, the Wildcats have the Florida Gators down in Gainesville. I wish I could tell you that I expected Kentucky to go down there and avenge the loss to Florida in Rupp earlier this month, but I'd be dishonest to do so. If Kentucky finds their shooting touch, the game will be interesting as long as they continue to defend well. If they shoot like they did in this game, the Wildcats could be in for a beat-down.
One thing about UK, though — they haven't given up even once this season, and notwithstanding the last minute free throws by Florida, were in a position to win every SEC game but the one at LSU. If the Wildcats come into the O-Dome hungry and fight like they have been doing, they will have a chance to win there as well. I wouldn't bet on them getting the win, but Kentucky still has more talent than just about anybody. That could assert itself, and if so, it will be fun to watch.