The Kentucky Wildcats got their 24th straight win last night against the LSU Tigers, and it was probably the 2nd or 3rd most difficult game Kentucky has played this season. The Texas A&M win was the first, and you can debate whether LSU or Ole Miss were tougher, notwithstanding the extra period in the Ole Miss game. Suffiice it to say that this one was plenty tough enough.
Congratulations to the LSU Tigers on an outstanding game. They really did some good things, and after careful review, particularly of the second half, they were probably a couple of made free throws or a turnover away from winning that game. LSU’s guard play was way better than it has been, and both Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin had very good games. The game really slowed down after about the 12 minute mark in the second half, and that plus lots of timeouts kept LSU fresh enough to stay in it to the end. They did a great job, and should be proud of that effort.
Kentucky really didn’t play all that bad. The replay indicates that LSU’s offensive execution was exceptionally sharp, the guards got the ball to the bigs in great places, and despite a number of very good defensive plays by Kentucky, LSU never got down, never got unfocused, and just kept coming back and executing. I looked for places to point the finger at UK players, and I was surprised at how many times it had little to do with UK, and everything to do with LSU’s play.
One criticism I can and will make about UK is the number of jump shots they settled for from 5 minutes in. There were way too many shots from guards in the midrange that were challenged, three or four of them when there was plenty of time to work for a much better look. Kentucky was settling not for threes, but for medium-to-long 2-pointers, often with a defender in their face. The best look during that entire stretch was a wide open three from the top of the key by Tyler Ulis, one of the easiest threes in basketball and Ulis’ favorite angle. He missed it, but it was within the offense by a dangerous shooter completely unopposed. Kentucky needed to work the ball down low more, where they had success all night.
Defensively, it is easy to think that UK let down this game, but the truth is, LSU did a great job on offense. They set terrific screens to free players — solid ones, not like the fake screens you see so often from UK players — and the guards were cutting hard off those screens. That’s good offensive basketball, and LSU has to get more credit in this case than Kentucky does criticism. Kentucky defended well, but LSU just played the game at a very high level, and Kentucky played below average offensive basketball with what I thought to be poor shot selection. There were some defensive letdowns, to be sure — the back-to-back open three from the top of the key and runout where Devin Booker was ballwatching instead of getting in defensive position comes immediately to mind — that took UK’s lead from 13 down to eight. But that wasn’t the rule.
Kentucky was slightly below average, efficiency wise, at 1.11 points per possession. I consider it pretty good under the circumstances, where Kentucky was taking too many bad shots.
17% from three is a real step back. Kentucky has really cooled off from outside lately. At least they didn’t take that many.
64% free throws is not good enough. In many small ways, Kentucky took a step back offensively this game, and those small things added up.
Kentucky rebounded the ball well offensively, which accounts for their better than expected efficiency.
Turnovers were not a problem at all. In the first half, UK gave away too many, but they got good control of that in the second. The problem is that five of those eight turnovers were steals, and those are live-ball turnovers than generally result in layups.
The blocks came back big time, and against an unlikely foe.
Defensive rebounding was not very good. 66% is just way too low for this team, it should be closer to 75% even against LSU.
Kentucky controlled the pace pretty well, particularly at crunch time. I think that helped both teams, LSU because they were getting tired and Kentucky because they prefer a more measured pace.
Kentucky did a poor job of getting the ball into the lane and getting fouled. For some reason, the Wildcats were settling for jump shots, and that was possibly because of LSU’s shot blocking prowess. It didn’t work very well, and UK didn’t get to the line near enough.
The ‘Cats gave up some pretty good shooting, but that was at least as much because LSU was executing sharply as to Wildcats’ defensive faux pas. Kentucky’s defensive issues came more from allowing offensive rebounds, and failing to secure rebounds they should’ve had. At least five of the ORs that LSU got were Kentucky mistakes, and that led to five extra shots. I can think of four of them that wound up being layups. That really jacked up the Tigers’ shooting percentage.
One defensive complaint I do have is that Kentucky switched some pick and rolls they should’ve defended differently. Some of this is Calipari’s fault for switching with a team that really isn’t a good candidate for switching. Too often, Aaron, Andrew or Devin wound up on either Mickey or Martin, and that was exploited by LSU several times. Another problem was WCS and the other big, either Dakari or Carl, failing to switch on big-big p&r’s. You have to do that. You don’t see that action often, but if you don’t switch it usually results in a layup.
LSU also did a really good job of attacking Kentucky very early in the shot clock. This is a recurring problem for the Wildcats as they are slow to get into their positions in the halfcourt, and that allows a rim attack that led to a couple of layups and dump-off dunks. WCS was notably out of position several times in those types of situations.
This was the toughest game ball call of the season. Three guys had great games. Finally, I settled on Andrew Harrison. Andrew played his second-best game of the season, shot a high percentage, made his free throws, had 4 assists and no turnovers. Defensively, Andrew was really good, and he gave us the aggressiveness we really needed late in the game.
Willie Cauley-Stein gets an honorable mention, with 7-9 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, a steal and an assist. He had a couple of turnovers and missed 3 out of 4 free throws on the negative side, plus I thought his defense was less intense than usual.
Karl-Anthony Towns also gets an honorable mention. He was once again excellent with yet another doube-double, had 2 blocks and 2 steals to go along with 12 points. His negatives were personal fouls and that chin-up technical.
Aaron Harrison, after a great outing last game, didn’t do much last night. He played okay on defense but didn’t make but one shot all night.
Dominque Hawkins started the game, but only played three minutes, missing his only shot but getting an offensive rebound.
Devin Booker had a good game. He shot a good percentage and was active on defense.
Tyler Ulis had a bad shooting night, but he took pretty good care of the ball and had 3 assists to only 1 turnover.
Trey Lyles did fine. He was visibly underconditioned after his illness, but was able to contribute with 4 points and 3 rebounds, as well as a block.
Dakari Johnson played better this game offensively, but he made several errors on defense that LSU exploited. he also didn’t rebound particularly well. He did have 2 blocks.
Marcus lee logged only six minutes, but made a beautiful hook shot and got a rebound.
Tying it all up
Overall, this was a game of tiny details. Several times, Kentucky was in position to secure defensive rebounds and lost them, and they just didn’t get the ball into the lane enough. The Wildcats shot poorly from three, but that sometimes happens and you just have to live with it. I really didn’t like all the 2-point jump shots, especially late in the game.
LSU played well, and sometimes you just have to acknowledge that the opponent deserved to put up some numbers against Kentucky. They match up well against us, and they did a good job of showing us some action that we don’t see that much, and weren’t really ready for. Let me show you what I mean:
In this first picture, you see the setup. Dakari is guarding Mickey, who is setting a screen for Martin. Willie is on Martin.
In the second picture, you see Wille getting rubbed off Mickey by Martin. The wing guard is preparing to make a pass to the cutter.
Now, notice where Willie and Dakari are. Willie is in perfect position to pick up Mickey, while Dakari is now in position to defend the cutting Martin. But Dakari and Willie do not communicate, do not switch.
In the last picture, you see Martin laying the ball in while Willie desperately tries to catch up. Dakari is doggedly guarding Martin who, by the way, is not really a threat. Even if Dakari had gone with Willie, they would’ve been better positioned to defend the play even if Mickey had cut to the rim and Martin had gotten him the ball.
This was very nice execution by LSU and poor execution by Kentucky, but a lot of things were good for LSU on this play, including a beautiful pass. Credit them as much as anything for a great play. This same action produced several good looks for the Tigers.
This is the kind of thing Kentucky is going to have to clean up in the future. Right now, we can just be thankful that the Tigers missed so many free throws and Kentucky showed their usual toughness in the face of defeat. That is all entirely praiseworthy, but the Wildcats definitely can do better than this. They have seven games remaining in the season to get stuff like this ironed out.
All in all, a win is a win, and a tough win is even better.
P.S. Sorry this took so long. I forgot tonight was date night. Oops.