In this second part of the season postmortem, we will examine the first half (nine games) of the SEC conference season, which began with the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in Rupp Arena and ended with the Ole Miss Rebels, also in Lexington. This was doubtless the best part of the conference season, and also arguably the easiest given that Florida appeared twice in the second half.
The mood of the Wildcats coming into SEC play had to be upbeat. They had defeated Louisville, and by doing so slain the dragon of having no significant non-conference victories. I suspect that both the team and Coach Cal were very relieved to get that monkey off their collective back. Coming out of the Louisville game, it seemed that the Wildcats were very close to becoming a strong team, and we cited some statistical support for that:
Kentucky's team defense was remarkable. Holding this Louisville team to 66 points is very good. The bottom line is that Kentucky absolutely played defense — hard. For the first time all season.
In retrospect, I should have been more alarmed about the 18.6% turnover percentage in the non-conference season, which was littered with more weak teams than strong ones. It was my thinking at the time that this was a learning curve, and that Kentucky was okay at that point. In retrospect, that looks like a misguided conclusion.
Looking back, we also should have been more concerned at the difficulty the Harrison twins were having with smaller guards, in transition particularly. That was a harbinger of much more difficulty to follow.
The home schedule
Home games for this half of the season were Mississippi St., Tennessee, Texas A&M, Georgia and Ole Miss. Kentucky managed a perfect record against the visitors with the closest one being fellow Elite Eight member Tennessee. None of the home games were particularly remarkable in this half of the schedule other than perhaps the last game of the first half against Ole Miss, where Kentucky had their best offensive performance of the SEC season. That game saw Kentucky shoot over 60% from 2-point range for the game. As it turns out, that game would be the last time Kentucky visited a 125+ offensive efficiency until the NCAA Tournament.
In a way, the home portion of the first half was fairly comfortable. The Wildcats kept turnovers under control, going over 20% TO's only once, against Texas A&M. Rupp Arena was it's familiar, comforting self, producing little drama in mostly comfortable wins. The closest Kentucky came to serious drama was versus the Tennessee Volunteers in the first half, where Kentucky went in only up two. In the second half, the Wildcats took the lead for good early in the half and never relinquished it. There were a few anxious moments near the end, but mostly, Kentucky won that game comfortably enough.
The road, as it turns out was a different story.
The away schedule
Road games in the SEC are always tough, regardless of what the league looks like on paper. Coaches in the SEC do a good job of game-planning for their foes, and as more and more tape becomes available, that gets easier and easier, particularly for a team like Kentucky that almost always brings a very simplistic game plan — try to out-athlete and out-skill your opponent. This season, SEC teams did a fantastic job of exploiting their home-court advantage, and as a result, Kentucky went 2-2 on the road in the first half of the season, which isn't really bad in the SEC. In the last five seasons, other than in 2012 when they were undefeated in the SEC regular season, Kentucky has lost at least one game on the road out of the first nine.
In fact, Kentucky has lost two or more games in three out of the five seasons that John Calipari has been at Kentucky: 2011, 2013 and 2014. The SEC early season has always been a bit difficult for his younger teams to manage, particularly on the road. They predictably tend to do better as they get more experience.
Key game: Arkansas Razorbacks
I fretted about this contest in the pregame, and game thread. Whether you know it or not, Arkansas really does care about basketball and they really do consider Kentucky a rival from back in the Rick Pitino days, and they are desperate to get that feeling back. They showed that passion against Kentucky with a sold-out and rowdy Bud Walton Arena and an SEC season-high number of fouls whistled against the Wildcats — 31. The Razorbacks got hit for 29, so it was an equal-opportunity foul-fest.
This was a nip-and-tuck game where neither team ever got out to a substantial advantage. Kentucky made this possible by turning the ball over ten times in the first half and six in the second, providing Arkansas with 13 additional shots on goal. That allowed UK to shoot an eFG% of almost 53%, with Arkansas at only 42%, and still lose the game.
Kentucky officially lost in overtime on a Michael Qualls put-back dunk of a Rashad Madden desperation miss, but in reality, Kentucky lost the game due to poor ballhandling and shot selection.
Key game: Missouri Tigers
After the loss at Arkansas, Kentucky won three straight in Rupp Arena before going on the road again. First, they went to Baton Rouge in yet another ice storm and completely swooned at LSU. The 87-82 final score did not indicate the competitiveness of the game. LSU led by ten or more points through over 14 minutes of the second half, and the late, meaningless charge by UK just made the game look better to those who didn't get to watch.
LSU represented the second straight road loss for the Wildcats, and many in the Big Blue Nation feared a hat trick going into Missouri. At this point, Mizzou had hit a rough patch dropping games at LSU and Vandy, and an overtime home loss to the Georgia Bulldogs. They had snapped back and won two in a row, including a road win at Arkansas. They were still very much considered an NCAA Tournament team, although they really needed to win versus Kentucky, because they were headed for a two-game road swing starting in Gainesville against the Florida Gators.
This was a game Kentucky was built to win, and did, primarily because of good rebounding and ballhandling. Unlike the Arkansas game where Kentucky turned the ball over 23% of the time, at Mizzou, the Wildcats were careful with the ball and wound up getting more shots than the Tigers, as well as shooting almost 61% eFG%. But they almost gave the game away when poor transition defense again reared its ugly head, as we noted in the postmortem:
In transition, Kentucky was ruthlessly exploited by the Missouri guards. This is a gigantic troll of a problem that Calipari must address immediately and at whatever length necessary to fix. Missouri is good at exploiting that weakness, but other teams are much, much better at it.
Those words would prove to be prophetic in the second half of the season.
SEC Conference first half evaluation
The problems that reared themselves in the pre-season, namely transition defense and turnovers, continued to crop up all too often in the first part of the conference season. That was the bad.
The good was that Kentucky was beginning to display some signs. Dakari Johnson had taken over at the starting center by this point and although Willie Cauley-Stein had been mired in a slump for most of the first nine conference games, he broke out of it against Ole Miss and began to return to form. Johnson had given Kentucky a more physical presence inside, and Kentucky was playing some of their best offensive basketball of the season as we got close to the middle of conference play.
I think by this time, most Kentucky fans had begun to doubt UK had a chance to get to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a top four seed still seemed possible. 7-2 in the first nine games with 4 on the road didn't inspire Wildcats fans to celebration, but nobody was threatening to jump out of windows, either.
Final grade for the first half of the SEC season: B
In the next installment, the second half of the SEC season, where things went a little bit sideways ...