I'm not a moral victory guy. I think the only time one should celebrate or puff out one's chest is after a victory. That being said, I don't feel all that bad after Saturday night's loss in Lawrence.
The Kentucky Wildcats have come a long way after losing to Auburn. They steamrolled through their next two SEC opponents and then went toe-to-toe with the Kansas Jayhawks in an environment that at which it is almost impossible to win.
While we all should be happy with the fight of this team, we should also be disappointed in the fact that Kentucky had multiple chances to win the game and just could not capitalize on the opportunities.
The Fight is There
One of the themes after the game was that this team has learned to fight. Guys were going after loose balls, they were fighting for rebounds (mostly losing the fights), and they had an answer for every Kansas run except for in overtime when the body count was low and the players were exhausted.
This is a great sign after seeing this team fold at LSU, give up a big lead against Mississippi State, and blow another big lead to eventually lose at Auburn. I don't envision this team making those same mistakes again going forward. They have learned to put their foot on the gas against lesser opponents and fight for every inch against the good ones.
Tyler Ulis is Great But He is Human
There was a small crowd of Kentucky fans that wanted to jump on the "Blame Tyler Ulis Train" on Sunday. To those people I saw this: you're idiots. For a portion of the game, the only reason Kentucky was in a position to win was because of Ulis. For every big shot Kansas hit, the best point guard in the nation would come down the floor and knock down an open jumper.
At the end of the game, he became a little sloppy but this is understandable. He played 45 minutes of a 45-minute game, giving every inch of himself in the process. He had 26 points, eight assists, and only two turnovers. There isn't much more he could have done.
The greatness of Ulis is undeniable, but my worry is that he is going to wear down as the season progresses. He is the most important player on the court for the 'Cats and he needs to be on the floor, but he's also human and he needs a rest from time to time. It's going to be difficult for him come tournament time because of the intensity of the games and the quick turnarounds. I know his heart will always be willing, but his body may have other plans.
When Alex Plays Like that, The 'Cats Usually Win
13 points and eight rebounds for Alex Poythress is usually a recipe for success for the Kentucky Wildcats. He was five of eight from the field, two for two from the line, and one for two from beyond the arch. He hustled on the boards and on defense. He had an OMG dunk and an OMG block. Alex did what he was supposed to do, and that is now a string of good performances for him.
It Wasn't Derek Willis' Night
Derek Willis struggled against the Jayhawks. After hitting an early jumper and a three, it looked as if Willis was about to get on track. But he could never quite get it going and some of that was due to foul trouble. He was hampered with it for most of the game and eventually fouled out. If the 'Cats would have had the Derek Willis we have seen recently, the outcome may have been different.
Tough to Rebound When you Have to Go Small
Kansas out-rebounded Kentucky 42-31 but it felt even worse at times. John Calipari was forced to go small for large portions of the game due to foul trouble for Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere, and Derek Willis.
The foul disparity has been well documented, 33 for Kentucky and 20 for Kansas, but I was disappointed that Cal never countered with Isaac Humphries, Tai Wynyard, or Charles Matthews. I understand that Cal is setting his rotation of best players for when March rolls around, but this was a winnable game, why not put in some players that can rebound. Which gets me to my next point...
Dominique Hawkins Wasn't Ready
I love Dom, love him, but he had not played seven straight games and this was not the game to insert him. He was a step slow on defense and his shot was not there. Cal admitted his mistake after the game. Instead of putting in Hawkins, I would have liked to have seen more of Charles Matthews, who only played two minutes and didn't take a shot, or Isaac Humphries to maybe rebound.
Calipari is very strict with his rotation, last year not included, but I don't understand some of his personnel decisions in that game.
Jamal Murray Wasn't on His Game. Again.
This was the second game in a row that Jamal Murray just did not seem like himself. He only scored 11 against Missouri and he "only" scored 15 against Kansas. There just isn't something right about him. He looked very tentative to drive against the Jayhawks and fell in love with the jump shot. In contrast, Isaiah Briscoe drove at will on the Kansas defenders (until the triangle and two was implemented) and was rewarded with lay-ups and free throws.
Murray is going to have to understand that he cannot just camp out and shoot J's. He has the athletic ability to drive to the basket at any given time. Maybe he is a little gun shy due to some early erratic play. He is learning to pick his spots and his shots, which is a good thing, but he needs to understand when to exploit his defender and use his driving ability. We would all rather see him taking those free throws instead of Briscoe.
Not to get on Briscoe too much because I think he is playing rather well.
With Everything that Went Against Kentucky, They Could Have Won
With four players fouled out and two more with four fouls and the complete exhaustion of Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe, the Wildcats had their chances to win. Kansas could not capitalize on their 47 free throws, hitting only 30 of them, and they could not stop Tyler Ulis in regulation.
There are two plays that stand out to me that I feel contributed to the loss the most. The first came when Jamal Murray lost Wayne Selden for a wide open corner three that he nailed. to put Kansas up 75-74 with 52 seconds left. And then the Tyler Ulis turnover as regulation ran out. Tied at 76, Kentucky had nine seconds to score to win. I wouldn't want the ball in any other player's hands in that situation.
It seemed that after the turnover, Ulis was getting on Murray for being out of position. Tyler looked as if he was kicking the ball to Murray who was wide open for three but he wasn't where he was supposed to be. Honestly, I would have rather Ulis driven to the basket for a layup or a foul.
This loss is more heartbreaking that it seemed on Saturday night. For most of the game, Kentucky was the better team. The differences were late game execution and a monster night from Wayne Selden. I'm not going to let the foul disparity be an excuse because Kansas did not capitalize on their chances.
Like Cal says, this team is still finding out what it is to play winning basketball. If they continue on this path, then we should all be excited about where they will be in the next month of the season.