The Kentucky Wildcats now stand at a near-historic 23-0, tied for the second-best season start in the history of the program. That’s obviously significant in a historical context and something to be proud of. But more importantly, the continued winning streak makes Kentucky’s status as a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament more and more likely, and harder to derail even with a loss or two. That is the most important objective, because no matter how many records this UK team sets, the only real objective is to win the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Nothing else comes close, in my opinion.
The most recent contest against the Florida Gators was at the same time praiseworthy and lamentable. It was praiseworthy for the remarkable fortitude and resilience this team, still young by any reasonable standards, shows in the face of significant adversity. The O’Connell Center was filled to the rafters with rowdy reptiles, and in respect to the part-time basketball fans down in the Sunshine State, I must say I was duly impressed with the volume they were able to generate, and the crowd clearly had a positive effect on Florida and a negative one on Kentucky. That’s exactly as it should be, and for Kentucky to win in the face of that intense and partisan horde and defy the adversity they faced with maturity and verve was impressive in the extreme.
It is also appropriate that I congratulate the Florida Gators on an excellent game. I have seen Florida play more than any team in the country this season other than Kentucky, and believe me when I tell you this game looked nothing like the feeble efforts I have seen against LSU, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Florida’s offensive execution was sharp, their defensive intensity was much higher than normal, and they did not fade under pressure. Well done, Gators, that was a game and noble effort.
What was lamentable was the awkward execution by the Wildcats, both offensive and defensively, and the fusillade of turnovers that Kentucky committed in the first half. Those turnovers enabled Florida to get out to a fairly significant lead, but as they have done when faced with deficits all year long, the Wildcats methodically worked it back down to a single basket at half, in spite of committing double-digit turnovers.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Kentucky’s defensive intensity was not bad, but their execution was questionable. Whether by coaching decision or problems with execution, Kentucky did a very poor job in help defense at the rim.
Kentucky was not bad on offense, even though they really didn’t shoot the ball all that well from the arc. Kentucky was pretty ordinarily efficient at 1.11 points/possession, but much of that was due to making 21 of 23 free throws.
Speaking of the free throws — 95.5%, wow. But in reality, that great shooting was mostly caused by getting the right people to the line, but WCS was 5-5, which is really impressive. This is the point at which free throw shooting usually begins to come around, and this team should be shooting 75% plus from the line. A few more of these, and they’ll be right there.
Offensive rebounding was much better than it has been, and so was defensive rebounding. Many will point to the free throws as the reason Kentucky won, but even their season average of 70% would have been good enough to win, albeit at a smaller margin. Rebounding was the big driver of this victory.
Turnovers were a horror show. I have no idea what produced such carelessness with the ball. We have to give some credit to Florida, though, because their press was effective and Kentucky handled it poorly. Having said that, 25% turnovers will normally get you beaten, especially on the road, but because the Gators were characteristically loose with the ball, the margin wasn't great enough to get them over the hump.
Kentucky got a couple of blocks, but I feel like they should’ve had way more than that against an undersized Florida team. I was really disappointed at how easily the Gators were able to get layups on drives rather than have them sent back. Something has palpably changed about how Kentucky defends in the interior, and not for the better. Florida was able to shoot 65% from 2-point range against Kentucky, and even though the home-court advantage is responsible for some of that, it’s still out of character for the Wildcats.
Kentucky has regressed a little in the area of passing. They need to keep them short and sharp, but they are starting to throw too many long, soft passes, particularly out of the post. But it wasn’t all bad, as there were a number of great passes made in this game both in transition and in the interior. It was coming from inside to out where we made too many errors.
Speaking of passing, assists were at 54.5% of made field goals. Outstanding.
Karl-Anthony Towns gets the game ball, although it was a close call between him and Aaron Harrison. Towns shot an efficient 6-9 from the field and 7-7 from the line, as well as 8 rebounds including 4 offensive, to go with a couple of blocks.
Aaron Harrison played a great game, and looked like the Aaron of last year’s NCAA Tournament. This is about the point in the season where we would expect him to be sharp, and he has been sharp 3 out of the last 4 games.
Willie Cauley-Stein was fine, but he just isn’t what he was earlier this season, his spectacular dunk notwithstanding. Word comes now that the ankle he injured last year is bothering him, and the wear and tear of the season seems to be taking a toll. It is still spectacular how he can guard 6‘0" point guards, though.
Andrew Harrison had a relatively poor game coming of his best game of the year. I guess that’s just how it goes, but I’d love to see some consistency from him.
Speaking of consistency, Tyler Ulis shot it poorly, but he was the picture of consistency with his passing and running of the offense.
Dominique Hawkins struggled last night. He broke down several times on defense and just didn’t have a very good game
Devin Booker’s shot was off from the outside, but he found other ways to score and wound up with a pretty efficient 6-11 from the field, and also pulled down 4 rebounds.
Not sure what’s going on with Dakari Johnson. He really didn’t do anything well, and seems to be in a bit of a funk. That sometimes happens, we’ve seen it from WCS more than once, and Andrew as well. Hopefully, it passes soon.
Marcus Lee was yet another guy who didn’t do much. He turned down open looks, made poor decisions and was anemic (for him) on defense.
Tying it all up
It would be easy to be highly critical of the team for some of its play yesterday. Four of the guys basically didn’t show up, and yet Kentucky still won in spite of a ridiculously high number of turnovers, so-so offensive execution, and a Florida team that shot the second-highest effective FG% of the SEC campaign. Florida was barely behind Ole Miss, a team that took UK to overtime in Rupp Arena.
But this is just the kind of game you expect to see during the grind of the SEC season. Games are coming thick and fast, and we start to see focus wane and even effort sometimes suffer. Also, Kentucky has another important rotation player down, and Trey Lyles absence was definitely felt in this game. He’s the kind of player that would have been very hard for Florida to account for.
I don’t think this effort will be sufficient against the LSU Tigers in the Deaf Dome. LSU is the best size matchup for Kentucky in the SEC, and they also have arguably more NBA talent than anyone in the league outside of Lexington. Kentucky has to bring better offensive execution, better ballhandling and better help on defense if it wants to get to 24-0 and be one game away from the 1954 team’s 25-0 mark. But even if UK fails and drops the LSU game, I am very comfortable with where they are right now. It would take a lot to get them out of the #1 seed position, and possibly even three losses between now and the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t knock them down from that lofty perch.
The late return for a Tuesday night game far away is going to be the ultimate test for Kentucky in this SEC regular season. I don’t expect Trey Lyles to be available, although he might well make the trip. We’re most likely going to have to beat the Tigers without him. But if nothing else, this UK team has shown itself to be gritty and fearless under duress, so I like our chances.