The Kentucky Wildcats got their 19th win of the season against the South Carolina Gamecocks today down in Columbia, SC. This takes Kentucky to a tie with the 2009-10 team for the best start in the John Calipari era. It was a game of very low possessions and somewhat ugly to the eye due to the poor offense by both teams. But lovers of defensive basketball had to appreciate the effort of both squads.
South Carolina played very well defensively, and rebounded the ball so well that they handed Kentucky only their third defeat of the season on the offensive glass, but unlike the others, this one was comprehensive and lopsided. South Carolina played very hard, but they just ran up against a superior team who did not have a bad game in most areas. USC played a competitive, hard fought game which we can all appreciate.
Kentucky once again failed to fire offensively, but defensively they played one of their better games of the year, and their second-best game against an SEC team — only Missouri in Rupp Arena had a lower efficiency than South Carolina in this game, but that was also partly due to the poor shooting USC has suffered through all season.
South Carolina box
Kentucky didn’t get beat on the offensive glass, they got crushed. Their rebounding in this game was inexcusably poor, and is the reason the Gamecocks were able to hang around until the end. 12% offensive rebounds? Really?
Ballhandling was great. You can’t really complain about 14% turnovers — in fact, that’s a number almost good enough to celebrate.
Once again, the Wildcats went on a shot-blocking rampage with 9 blocks.
Kentucky had 14% steals, a really good number, right in line with their season average.
Free throw shooting turned out okay. The Wildcats started off poorly, but they got better as the game wore on and wound up shooting 71%. Not great, but for this team, it’s okay.
56% assists. Broken record, but this team shares the ball.
3-point shooting was just okay. I thought Kentucky took too few shots again with only 9 attempted threes.
Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker share the game ball. Ulis was great with 6 assists and only 1 turnover, and Booker did exactly what he was supposed to do — make shots. He had 18 points on a spectacular shooting percentage. At this point in time, Booker is the 5th most efficient player in America.
Karl-Anthony Towns just didn’t have a great game. Defensively, he was fine, and he made one nice move offensively, but he didn’t rebound well and overall seemed to struggle with the physicality of South Carolina. He may have hit a bit of a wall.
Andrew Harrison also had a relatively poor game. He had 2 assists and 2 turnovers and was only 1-5 shooting the ball. He made several very questionable plays, and seems to be pressing way too hard. If he’d just play, I think he’d be okay, but for the second straight game, he really wasn’t very good at all.
Aaron Harrison was just okay. He didn’t shoot a high percentage, but defended extremely well with a block and 3 steals. I’d like to see more out of him, but he’s playing much better overall than at the same point last season.
Dakari Johnson was the best rebounder Kentucky had — with 6 total boards. In a low-possession game like this, that’s not awful, but 1-3 shooting from point-blank range gets on my nerves.
Trey Lyles did fine, other than rebounding the basketball. He had 3 turnovers, though. For a freshman, it’s hard to complain about a game like this, but he’s capable of better.
Willie Cauley-Stein played pretty well. He rarely scores much, and this game was no exception, but the rest of his stat line was great with 4 rebounds, an assist, a block and 2 steals.
Marcus Lee had a great game, and gets honorable mention for game ball. He didn’t score but one point on a free throw, but had a couple of rebounds and 4 (!) blocks, and they were all pretty ones. He had good energy and defended very well.
Tying it all up
I’ll tell you right now, I’m very unhappy with 1.02 points per possession offensive efficiency in this game. Without any intent to disparage the great defense South Carolina, or any other SEC teams have played, these last two games have simply not been the kind of offensive basketball that NCAA Tournament champions play. This needs to change, and the sooner the better.
But having groused about that, the defense this Kentucky team plays is the best I have ever heard of. I’ve been watching college basketball for four and one half decades, and I can’t ever recall seeing its like. And that’s what makes the lack of offense all the more baffling — players this talented learn offense first. Perhaps the effort on defense is what is hurting their offense, or perhaps Dick Vitale and Co. are right — the platoon system (drink) is making it hard for the Wildcats to get into an offensive rhythm. I don’t know.
What I do know is that if there is a coach in college basketball who can figure it out and get it fixed, it is John Calipari. I have all sorts of faith in Calipari’s magic, and I’m confident he’s well aware of the problem. Still, as an observer, it’s hard to watch the offense struggle like that two games in a row. I think what is lacking is an understanding of what to do when closely guarded out on the floor. You have to space the floor, the dribbler must immediately attack his defender off the dribble and set sail toward the rim. When the defense rotates and collapses to protect it, you have open players all over to pass the ball to.
Ah, well. In the big scheme of things, these are little more than nit-picks. Kentucky has been a great team this season, and their defense has been galactically superior to any I have seen. I suppose, as the old saying goes, you can’t have everything.
Doesn’t make me stop wanting everything, though.