After a shaky win at home against Mississippi State and a bad loss at Auburn, this Kentucky Wildcats team seems to have found something that works. After two lackluster performances, the 'Cats went on the road to trounce Arkansas 80-66 and then demolished Vanderbilt in Rupp 76-57.
What's going on and what has been the key to the turnaround? Here's what we've learned.
The Tweak Came Early
In order to turn around the 2014 season, John Calipari had to institute a "tweak" before the SEC tournament. It was as simple as instructing Andrew Harrison to run the team a little differently. This season, the tweak came early and it was simple, as well: going small and stretching the floor.
The team was getting nothing out of a set that included a traditional back to-the-basket big man and a traditional power forward. So Cal put Alex Poythress at the five and Derek Willis at the four. Alex is strong enough and athletic enough to guard most centers and he can create his shot better with the mismatch. Willis adds offensive firepower and is able to hit threes as will as mid-range jumpers. What do they give up? Nothing really. I'll highlight that more when I discuss Derek Willis.
The guards now have less pressure to score and they have another trusted man on the court that can hit jump shots to kick the ball out to. The offense is flowing and isn't sticking as much. With Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere, the guards didn't trust giving the ball up to them and for good reason. Jamal and Tyler are going to get theirs but it's nice that they finally have some help.
Derek Willis Has Arrived
Who would have thought that the key to unlocking this team was Derek Willis? We were looking for Issac Humphries or Tai Wynyard to perhaps add the spark that the team needed, but it came in the form of the junior from Mount Washington.
Willis' improved play actually started against Auburn in which he played 31 minutes and had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Since then he has earned a starting spot and has been giving the team what it's been missing: blocks and rebounds. Dating back to the Auburn game, Willis has had 28 rebounds and six blocks. Yeah, those are good numbers.
Even though he only had seven points against Vanderbilt, he had nine rebounds, a steal, and a block. His defense has improved and he is doing everything they 'Cats need him to do.
They Are Defending the Three
Auburn beat Kentucky partly because of their three-point shooting. The Tigers were 12-26, 46.2% from the three, which is a little more than their average.
Arkansas's three point average is 43.5%. Kentucky held them to 16.7%. Vanderbilt's three point average is 40.8%. Kentucky held them to 33.3%. Isiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis are doing a phenomenal job defending the perimeter. Willis has picked up his defense and Charles Matthews has, as well. Jamal Murray is coming along defensively, but could still use some work.
Charles Matthews is Earning His Spot
For a while, Charles Matthews seemed solidified as the sixth or seventh man off of the bench. But recently, he has been demoted with Mychal Mulder taking his minutes. Matthews has been limited on offense and had not been giving the 'Cats much in any other facet of the game. At least Mychal Mulder gave the threat of offense.
But Matthews has been practicing well and has stepped up his game on the court. He is defending well, rebounding, and attacking the basket. But the key to Matthews is his defense. He is a big reason as to why Kentucky is defending the three so well.
Skal is Still a Work in Progress
We all got our hopes up a little after his 11 point and three block performance against Arkansas. But he played limited minutes against Vanderbilt as a follow-up. Calipari stated after the game that he didn't like the math up for Skal, primarily the physical nature of of their bigs and their ability to step out and hit the three.
Calipari is taking his time with Skal more than any other five-star recruit that he's had and for good reason. There will be games when the Haitian makes us jump out of our seats and say, "did you see that!", and there will be games like he had against Vanderbilt. All we can do as fans is continue to root for him and have patience.
Tyler Ulis Has Been Brilliant
The Kentucky point guard has stepped up to the plate. His leadership, decisionmaking, and his play have been nothing short of outstanding. In the past two games he has scored over twenty points, his three point shooting has been 50% or better, his free throw shooting has been 93% and 100%, and he's had 10 assists to three turnovers.
He has called his teammates out a few times and they have seemed to have finally responded.
There really isn't much more you can ask of him and the lack of national attention he's getting has been a joke.
Taking Care of the Ball and Turning the Other Team Over
In two games they have forced 21 turnovers and have only committed 13. This is a product of the fighting and the battling that Calipari has been preaching.
I still think this team has one or two clunkers left in them before we get into this postseason, and possibly more. But they are playing with a confidence that we really haven't seen for an entire game almost all season.
We kept asking ourselves: when is this team going to get up on somebody and put their foot on the gas? It's now happened twice in a row. Kentucky will play Missouri on Wednesday night and then will follow that up with a game at Kansas on Saturday. That will be the barometer as to where this team really is right now.
I'm not expecting a win in Lawrence, but if Kentucky can go in there and compete and fight for 40 minutes, then I am going to like my team's upside for the rest of the season.