Going into the season, it seemed like the only visible weakness this team had was their size and overall play down low.
Sure, Bam was, and still is a monster down low. But other than Bam, who's going to give the Cats that extra toughness every team needs?
Like every year, we as fans just assume that things will work... until they don't. This is one of those years where the expectations of this team were really high. In my opinion, they were to high.
Their potential as a team were drawing comparisons to the potential of the 2014 team for reasons I couldn't understand. The experience mixed with the size down low... the two teams are totally different. That 2014 team deserved to have high expectations, this one, not so much.
Going back to the main point, toughness is definitely an issue for this team. Louisville was really the first team that got physical with the Cats. They didn't respond well at all, shooting 39% overall and a pitiful 22% from the 3-point line. It's as if the Cats ran into a brick wall. They were getting pushed and shoved down low, experiencing full court pressure the entire game, and really getting worn down by the physical UofL defense. The Cats got out-worked the entire game.
It was very clear that UK had a lot to work on after that game. The main thing they needed to work on was playing more physical, both on offense and defense. Bam stepped up big in that game, but in the end, it was to much for him to handle. He was double, and even triple teamed when he got the ball. The team as a whole needed to step up and be more physical. The team came back after that game in a big way.
When they went to Ole Miss and blew away the Rebels, it seemed as if there was something different. The Cats were flying up and down the court causing turnovers, getting dunks, and big Bam had himself a day! We saw Texas A&M come and go with a huge win at Rupp, but these past three games really showed Kentucky's toughness in wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Auburn.
The first half of the Arkansas game Kentucky started off sloppy. Ugly turnovers, not getting back on defense after a made basket, it was just ugly. But the important takeaway from the first half was that Malik Monk sat for a while with two fouls and the Cats still found themselves up by 3.
The second half was much better. When the Cats finally climbed up to a 10-point lead, we saw a dirty play by Arkansas. Stepping on Isaiah Briscoe absolutely ignited the team, propelling them to a 26-point win at home.
When Arkansas started pushing, the Cats pushed back even harder. That win showed great toughness from the whole team. Bam did his thing down low, while Briscoe and Fox were very physical, driving in the paint and getting fouled hard to get to the line. Seeing that edge by the whole team was huge and a very good sign for the future of the team.
The Vandy game was crazy; it was back and forth the entire game. It was one of those grind-it-out, tough games on the road that the Cats had to pull out and they did. Again, Fox and Briscoe led the charge, driving, getting fouled, and finishing at the line.
Another huge stat to look at was Monk's play. He didn't play well at all, he went 1-9 in the past two games behind the arc and was in foul trouble for most of the game vs Arkansas and picked up two silly fouls to start the game at Vandy.
A similar scenario played out against Auburn with De'Aaron Fox in foul trouble for much of the game, which helped Auburn get within two scores twice in the second half. But each time the Tigers were within striking distance, Briscoe and Monk made big play after big play and turned a close game into a blowout win.
This is a very good sign because the Cats proved that they don't need to rely on Monk to go off and score a ton of points to win, or Fox to play throughout and avoid foul trouble. We've now seen UK overcome both of those issues to win contested game.
With each game, these Cats are looking more and more poised to make a deep run this March.