A win is a win, especially in conference play, but fans are not exactly overjoyed with the Wildcats' performance last night. The Cats defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs by a score of 80-74. That does not seem too bad until you realize that Kentucky led by as many as 20 in the second half. That being said, Kentucky picked up the win and moved to 13-3 (3-1 in SEC play).
Good: Backcourt play
Without the stellar play of Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray, Kentucky may have very well lost the game last night. All three guards played well last night, which was much needed due to the lack of frontcourt production (more on that later). Ulis, Briscoe, and Murray each shot at least 50 percent from the floor and combined for 57 of the team's 80 points (71 percent of the scoring).
Ulis turned in another strong scoring performance, finishing with 21 points on 7-14 shooting. He also added three rebounds, five assists, and two steals to his stat line. Ulis is typically thought of as more of a passer than a scorer, but on a team that has had limited success offensively, Ulis has turned in to quite the offensive threat. Last night was his fourth 20-point game in the last five.
Isaiah Briscoe has really improved offensively as well. Briscoe followed up his impressive performance against Alabama by going 7-9 from the floor, scoring 14 points and adding four rebounds to go along with five assists. Briscoe has had success with mid-range jump shots (surprising considering his free throw shooting woes) but the added dimension of those jump shots makes Briscoe (and the Wildcats offense as a whole) much more dangerous.
Jamal Murray had an excellent first half shooting from beyond the arc, and although he cooled down, he still finished with 22 points on 7-14 shooting (5-11 from three) and added three assists. Murray can be a streaky shooter, but when he is on, he is one of the most dangerous shooters in the country. This was his third consecutive game with at least 20 points.
The Bad: Frontcourt Production
This should probably be "the ugly" but I give Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, and Skal Labissiere some credit for things they did against the Bulldogs, but they were still mostly a no-show. Combining for 13 points is going to make things difficult for this team moving forward. Ulis, Briscoe, and Murray will not always play exceptionally well, and if the frontcourt does not show up, Kentucky is in a ton of trouble.
Poythress was probably the most disappointing to me. Except for some clutch free throws in the end, he was nowhere to be found most of the game, especially on the offensive end. Poythress had a grand total of TWO points before hitting four free throws at the end of the game. It would be different if we knew that Poythress couldn't score, and by all means I am not saying he is an offensive powerhouse, but he just scored 25 the game before. Alex Poythress has to be active on the offensive end, attacking the rim and drawing fouls. On a positive note for him, he was excellent at the free throw line at the end and he pulled down eight rebounds, but overall, Kentucky can't afford to have these kinds of performances from Poythress.
Marcus Lee also struggled throughout the game. He finished with two points on 1-2 shooting, nine rebounds, two blocks, and fouled out of the game. I believe Marcus Lee is arguably one of the most valuable parts to this team. When Marcus Lee doesn't play well, the team typically doesn't play well. I give Lee credit for his rebounding numbers, but Kentucky is at its best when Marcus Lee is not in foul trouble and is active defensively and creating second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
There isn't much to be said for Skal that hasn't already been said. He's a project, and we shouldn't really expect a huge break-out game for him. It's going to take time; he is not going to turn the corner overnight. Skal provided five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes of action. Not bad compared to some of his other games, but Kentucky needs him to begin producing. I don't know when it will happen, but ultimately, I think you'll see progression out of him. There is talent there, but it isn't making itself shown. Hopefully, he can start to be a contributor soon.
The Ugly: Defense
The Cats struggled on defense most of the night, allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 53 percent from the floor. It's very rare that you see a team shoot that well in Rupp Arena, but the Bulldogs continued to make shot after shot. Their turnovers ultimately kept them from keeping the game close throughout. Guard Craig Sword shot 9-13 with 20 points to lead the team, while Malik Newman and Gavin Ware were also in double digits.
The Bulldogs ability to consistently make shots helped the team come back from a 20 point deficit and send the game down to the wire. Kentucky is a better team than Mississippi State and should have won this game handily (The Cats were a 16 point favorite) but a lack of defense allowed the Bulldogs to make this a much closer game.