I went down the rabbit hole of my DVR this lazy afternoon (a man can only binge watch so much Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and House of Cards), and I eventually made my way to Kentucky's games in the Bahamas from last August. It made for great viewing considering yesterday's victory over Florida, which firmly placed an exclamation point on an historic regular season. It also demonstrated how far the team has come since the halcyon days of late summer. We started from the top now we're here.
At this point, only the #20 team in the world FIBA rankings has beaten us... And it was without WCS and Lyles. Damn this has been special— KeithGarrett (@_KeithGarrett) March 7, 2015
Watching a few of the games, it came to my attention that this team has improved further since August which is unreal considering their starting position. Sure, every team improves in ways over a season, but the 2014-15 Kentucky men's basketball team has improved in every way, and in some areas did so exponentially. I'd like to highlight a few ways that stood out to me after going back and watching two of the games from August while keeping in mind that UK played vastly different personnel then.
First, is it just me or have The Brother's Harrison improved their perimeter defense? Last season, they often struck me as long but almost unathletic as crazy as I know that sounds. Watching the game against Chalons-Reim felt like being transported back to January 2014 at moments. Yet, this season has been different. Their lateral quickness has been on point all season (putting aside moments from the recent Georgia and Florida games), not to mention their team defense fundamentals which went from "high school playboy" status to what all of us overeager middle-age rec league warriors aspire to accomplish without pulling something. Having two or three elite shot blockers help, but the Harrison's perimeter defense has improved, and that's been a significant contributor to this season's success.
Another significant contributor has been the emergence of Karl-Anthony Towns. As fate would have it, I saw KAT play a high school game last year, and I hardly recognize him from a year ago. He's added good weight, strength, and a dependable post game. No longer does he get rebounds taken from him, bring the ball down to his waist on rebounds, or fail to pass out of double teams. More than that, he's become an effective rim protector, and I don't think that was a part of his game previously. Despite being a pretty good shooter from 15 feet outwards, he's developed a post-game that's better than 90% of college basketball. He's ridiculously good, and still young for his "grade". There's no denying that he's a future NBA All-Star given his ceiling and his rapid improvement in various areas.
Finally, Devin Booker. Booker was a surprisingly good defender in the Bahamas, but he is even better now with hours of practice time devoted to teaching the defensive side of the game. UK's defense doesn't take a step back when he's on the court, and on top of that is his offensive game. You know all of this: makes his free throws, knocks down open three's like his name is Stephen Curry, and runs off his screens with a tightness familiar to spelunkers. The only reason he would come back next season is so he can be a Top 7 pick instead of a Top 15 pick.
All of these improvements, and I'm sure they're more, come courtesy of UK's coaching staff. Liters of ink have already been spilled - justifiably so - on the staff's Joss Whedon-like ability to mold individual super heroes into a team. What doesn't get discussed as much is the key improvements in each individuals' game that levels up the entire team.
None of this is to say this UK team will win a championship given March Madness' one-loss model...
...but this team is poised, more than any other, for winning six games in a row. The individual improvements over the course of this season is a big reason why Vegas seems so eager to hand you money for picking someone besides UK to win it all.
This has been an historic season. One that I personally took for granted at times being spoiled by success. I was watching when the 2003 team played defense like their hair was on fire after halftime at Vanderbilt which served as a cataylst for the rest of the season. I watched BCG's introductory press conference which I'm not ashamed to admit (but am ashamed to tell you which Versailles Road fast food restaurant I watched it from. Hint: I'm Catholic, it was Lent, and desperate times call for desperate measures). I was watching through a blurry webcast at 5AM from Afghanistan in 2010 as UK couldn't hit the broadside of a barn against West Virginia.
I wasn't watching on January 31st when UK dismantled Alabama. I chose to do other things instead of watching UK beat Arkansas a month later. In short, I'm willing to bet this team has spoiled larger segments of BBN than just myself. They are just that good and the improvements provide a justification for otherwise devout fans to do something else in life. Having a monolithic team is the weirdest thing. Seriously.
Let's look forward to the next month, but let's also embrace what a memorable trip it's been. We aren't going to see it again.