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Kentucky Basketball: 2013-14 Season Postmortem Part 1

This is the first part of a multi-article review of the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats season -- what went right, what went wrong, and what it means for the future.

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the time has come for the 2014 season postmortem. The players have all decided what's next, we know what next season's team will look like and who will be moving on to the NBA. John Calipari's new book is out, he's finally had his long-awaited hip replacement, and we are heading into 2015 recruiting season for both football and basketball, and of course, to summer vacations and holidays. Now is a good time to review what we saw last season, to grade the team's performance, and to take a brief preview of next season.

We'll break the season down into three sections: Non-conference, conference, and post-season. We'll examine how the Wildcats did in each section, and eventually, overall. Because of the depth of this review, we'll be breaking the postmortem into five discrete articles, all tied together in a common story stream.

Non-Conference Season

Entering the non-conference season, Kentucky fans had high hopes of reaching the Louisville game either undefeated or with only one loss, perhaps to Michigan State. That was the plan, anyway, and of course, the last step in that sequence was a beat-down of the rival Cardinals. It didn't quite happen that way ...

Key game: Michigan State Spartans

Much was expected of Kentucky coming into this season. The Wildcats had what was widely considered to be one of, if not the, best recruiting classes in NCAA basketball history. There have been so many articles written on the subject of that class that it bears very little review, other than to say the Wildcats had size, strength, and some athleticism at every position although this class was anything but freakishly athletic. It was, however, very skilled.

After a few easy games against weak foes including two exhibitions and two official contests, the Wildcats ran up against the Michigan St. Spartans in the third game of the season as part of the State Farm Champion's Classic. Most people not in love with the idea of 40-0 (of which most of this community was justifiably skeptical) felt that this was the game that would take the measure the Wildcats early in the season, and they were right. MSU was big, talented and experienced, and they proved that all that meant something no matter how highly touted Kentucky's freshmen were.

We won't rehash the Michigan St. game in great depth. If you need a refresher, here is the game thread, the second half game thread and postmortem for that particular contest. Instead, we'll take a look a the big picture items that emerged from the game:

The good
  • Offensive and defensive rebounding
  • 2-point FG shooting
  • Shot-blocking
  • 2-point FG defense
The bad
  • Turnovers
  • Free throw shooting
  • Transition defense
  • 3-point shooting consistency

The reason I mention these things is because this game represented, in a way, the archetype for the struggles of the Wildcats all season long against quality opponents. Rebounding was almost always their calling card. They were usually pretty good inside the arc, both offensively and defensively. They blocked and challenged shots, particularly close to the basket.

Their struggles began with taking care of the ball, which would almost always show up in defeats. Free throw shooting was a season-long soul-destroying siege which they never quite defeated. Transition defense was poor from the first tip to the final horn, and was a major factor in most of Kentucky's 11 losses. 3-point shooting was up and down, but the improvement in that stat had a big impact on Kentucky's post-season success.

Key game: North Carolina Tar Heels

The Baylor game, which I don't consider key, was an outlier. Baylor simply played at a level they rarely achieved again last season, particularly late in the game. However, the North Carolina game was pivotal. Game threads for this may be found here and here, and the postmortem here.

North Carolina was Kentucky's chance at redemption, and for a quality road win — not to mention a victory over one of the few rivals that has a series record advantage over UK. This was a match up of two teams considered to be post-season locks, although UNC had lost to two weaker opponents, and Kentucky close losses to comparatively strong opponents.

What reared its head in this game was once again transition defense and turnovers, and Kentucky allowed the Tar Heels to shoot 51% inside the arc, while managing only 43% themselves. North Carolina's length bothered Julius Randle, who would make only three of nine attempts.

Still, this loss was forgivable to a large extent — young team, first true road contest in a sold-out gym against a major rival. Nobody in the Big Blue Nation was happy at this point, but almost everyone was willing to live with this loss without too much complaint. Unfortunately, in combination with the Baylor loss, it put Kentucky in a position of desperately needing a quality non-conference win.

Key game: Louisville Cardinals

Kentucky came into the Louisville game under pressure, even though they had but three losses to their name at this point in the season. The problem was, Kentucky had yet to beat a team considered to be near their level or above. Louisville most certainly filled that bill, as at this point in the season, the Cardinals had but one loss — one that seemed bizarre at the time — to the North Carolina Tar Heels in a game that was not as close as the 93-84 score.

If Kentucky had lost this game, it would have branded them as an early-season washout. At the time, Kentucky had fallen from #1 to #18 in the AP poll, and Louisville had risen all the way to #6 on the strength of blow-out victories against lesser foes. This was a home game for UK, but the young Wildcats were under siege in the national media. Interestingly, so were the Cardinals, who had been saddled with an easy schedule and had failed at their only opportunity for a quality win to date. John Clay had it thus:

There's more. A loss will confirm UK has clearly lost the in-state momentum, that the pre-season ranking was ridiculously premature, that since AD and MKG departed, the one-and-done has not been quite as much fun.

The game threads for the contest can be found here and here, and the postmortem here. Kentucky rose to the occasion and defeated the Cardinals if not convincingly, at least not last-second. As usual, rebounding was key and for once, turnovers were not much of a problem. Transition defense, as usual, was a problem, but the Cardinals had no answer for Kentucky's size and skill inside as Julius Randle dominated the first half, succumbing to cramps to sit out the second. James Young and Aaron Harrison ably picked up the slack in the second stanza and Kentucky went on to a hard-fought but relatively undramatic win.

The real story in the Louisville game was how well Kentucky defended, particularly Wilie Cauley-Stein. He was the proverbial Gordian knot for the Cardinals, a riddle they simply could not solve. In the end, this game proved that Kentucky had some potential they hadn't quite shown in the early part of the season and that they could win a close game against a quality opponent. Both those questions had been very much in doubt coming into the contest.

With the victory, the Kentucky Wildcats were 10-3 heading into the conference season in the SEC.  UK moved up to #15 in the AP poll and with the advent of Camp Cal over the holiday break, seemed to be positioned to improve during the conference season with perhaps an outside shot at a #1 NCAA Tournament seed.

Non-conference season evaluation

There were few people in the Big Blue Nation satisfied with how the non-conference season went last year. Kentucky was having a lot of trouble taking care of the ball and making free throws, the much-ballyhooed emphasis on impeding the ballhandler was being enforced spottily, and the Wildcats showed significant weakness defending in transition, particularly against smaller, quicker teams.

While Kentucky was big, strong and skilled offensively, they were somewhat disappointing athletically in the back court, which primarily showed up on defense. Kentucky consistently struggled to control penetration by smaller guards, and get back in transition. With better ballhandling, better defense and a modest improvement in free throw percentage, Kentucky could have easily been 12-1. Perimeter shooting was streaky, and tended to desert the Wildcats against more accomplished foes.

10-3 in the non-conference season was disappointing for the Big Blue Nation, but fortunately at this point, did not look fatal to the NCAA Tournament championship hopes of the Wildcats. As the conference season loomed including some weaker SEC foes, the victory over Louisville and the upcoming long period of practice afforded by the Christmas holidays provided hope that the stumbles of the first 13 games would be just a minor setback. Of course, there would be more challenges to come.

Final grade for the non-conference season — C

In the next installment, the first half of the SEC season.