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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Breaking Down Kentucky's Senior Night Comeback

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The Wildcats dug themselves a 19-point grave only to fill it back up and bury Vandy in a shallow one.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In yet another rendition of "how nervous can you make the Wildcats fans," the 2016-17 incarnation of the ‘Cats demonstrated once again that no lead is apparently too big to spot teams this season, at least in Rupp Arena. Another way of putting it is to say Kentucky stepped knee-deep into a pile of crap and came out on bended knee, engagement ring in hand, smelling like Georgio Armani dressed them.

If there is one thing about this year’s team that constantly calls to mind the 2013-14 Wildcats, it is the tendency to start games behind. But even those worthies never dug themselves a 19-point grave on Senior Night (of all nights) for a team that is built to defend such a lead with long-range barrages, then fill it back in and bury their opponent in a shallow grave instead.

This game was remarkable for its drama, tension, and improbability. In other words, it was memorable. Derek Willis’ proposal on the Rupp Arena floor during the pre-game festivities was a tiny drop in the drama bucket for almost everyone but him and his newly-minted fiancé when examined in the context of this struggle for the ages.

Now, to the particulars:

The good and great

  • In this game, the two halves of basketball could not have been more different, very reminiscent of the game vs. Florida on Saturday only much more pronounced. Kentucky was great in the second half.

  • Defensive rebounding continues to shine for the 7th game in a row. Again, this recalls 2013-14.

  • After the first half’s 9 turnovers, I’m sure we all thought this was going to be another poor ballhandling game. It wasn’t. UK wound up with only 11 for the night — two in the entire second half (16%).

  • Shooting inside the arc was very good at 50%.

  • Free throw shooting continues to be a major contributor to victory. 77% as a team on 26 attempts is very good.

  • Pick and roll defense continues to improve. It still broke down more than anyone would like, but it’s getting better seemingly every game.

  • The extension of UK’s defense was a sharp coaching move on Calipari’s part. Letting the Commodores run their offense with the shooters they have is begging for defeat. You have to disrupt them, they are just too good in the half-court. Kentucky held Vandy under 1 point/possession (0.96), something only one other opponent has done in the last 15 games.

  • Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo continue to shine. Monk had only 7 points in the first half and exploded for 20 in the second. Bam had 16 strong points, but only 6 rebounds. Game ball: Malik Monk for the second time in two games, and attacking the rim is why he is playing so well.

  • Once again, the senior contribution was huge. Willis defended and had a team-high 8 rebounds and 3 blocks, Dom Hawkins was big defensively, and Mychal Mulder hit five critical points when Kentucky was on the brink of disaster in the first half.

The not-so-good and bad

  • Cold first-half shooting. When will it end?

  • De’Aaron Fox’s return was a struggle, but he did some good things late.

  • 3-point shooting was abysmal for the whole game up until the very end. Still, 29% at home is not good.

  • Offensive rebounding was meh, 25%.

  • Allowing Vanderbilt to make 39% of 28 threes (11 total) will get you beat 75% of the time.

  • Vanderbilt shot the ball well from everywhere. Turnovers killed their offensive efficiency, as Kentucky shot the ball 6 more times, plus shot 10 more free throws.

  • Kentucky only managed 1.04 points/possession. Anemic.

  • Nine missed layup attempts.

This game falls into the category of, "Wow, how the hell did we pull that off?" Quite simply, it was a game that Kentucky should’t have been able to win, since the Wildcats haven’t pulled off a comeback this large in 23 years.

But you have to hand it to them for getting it done despite the odds. I keep mentioning the 2013-14 team, and this year’s Wildcats are the version of that team that won rather than lost the close ones.

We’ve been describing recent victories generally under the heading of "any win is a good win." I have to wonder when we’ll be using the "Kentucky played great" appellation again this season to describe a stretch longer than 20 minutes?

Soon, I hope.