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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: The good, bad and ugly of first 13 games

It’s been a bumpy road thus far, but UK is still riding high with 11 wins entering 2018.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats gave us one last gift with a narrow win against a hard-nosed Georgia Bulldogs team, ending the year 11-2 overall (1-0 in conference play).

John Calipari only had high praise for his long-time friend Mark Fox, who never backs down in a fight at Rupp. Last season, Georgia gave them a tough time down on their home court, and with the Bulldogs retaining a lot of veteran players we knew this game would be rough. The SEC is a tough conference for a young team to bulldoze through, but with the win last night the Cats start 1-0 in conference play.

2017 wasn’t the easiest year for Kentucky fans. The Cats finished last season 32-6 overall and were the 2 seed in their corner of the bracket. After fighting their way through the tournament, they lost 75-73 to the “soon-to-be” national champion North Carolina team in the Elite Eight.

This game left a bitter taste in player and fans mouths alike knowing that the team had the talent level to win it all, but fortunately, Kentucky still sent three players in the 1st round of the draft. Saying goodbye to talents like De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo is always hard but seeing them prosper in the NBA is more rewarding than anything.

The 2017-18 season started off bright with another top draft class for Kentucky giving them a #5 preseason AP ranking. This ranking has slowly fallen to #17 with the polls dropping the Cats even when they win.

Although the Georgia game didn’t look like it, these young Cats have grown in large strides since the beginning of this season. The dominating win over Louisville showed the nation what they could be when the team is hitting on all cylinders.

With that being said, let’s go over this 2017’s half of the season with my favorite article: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – The young, Canadian-born freshmen guard has been tremendous for this Wildcat bench. Coach Cal has praised SGA saying that he’s one of the players he’s able to trust late. He knows that he’ll go into the game and just play, he won’t let the pressure of every shot get to him.
    Late in games, it’s SGA and Quade who Coach wants with the ball to send to the line. Being able to have Shai off the bench has been a tremendous asset for the team. This allows him to lead the second unit and get the shots that he wants, while still being unselfish with the ball, instead of splitting with Diallo or Quade.
  • Guard Play in General - Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; These guards have been great for UK this season. Coach Cal’s offense is generally led by great guard play, and these young guys fit it perfectly. Diallo has been with the team since last year but didn’t play until this season. His growth as a player has been tremendous especially being the main rebounding guard on the team. He’s so athletic and bringing that to the team is huge.
    Quade Green is the other starting guard and has been the Wildcats’ main consistent outside shooting threat. Quade and SGA are the only two players Coach Cal has said he can trust late to go into the game and get the job done. Both players have been praised for their late-game poise. Without the tremendous play from these three players game in and game out the Cats wouldn’t be sitting at 11-2.
  • Perimeter Defense - In the last two games UK has held their opponents to 5-for-46 for 3-point range. Early in the season teams had free-range against the Cats out on the perimeter. They showed some signs like holding Virginia Tech, one of the best shooting teams in the nation, to 10 3-pointers. Then they let UCLA drain 12 shots from deep. After that game, Coach Cal cracked down on it starting with Louisville. Kentucky held Louisville to just 12% and 3-for-25 from 3-point range. They kept up this tight defense against Georgia with them going just 2-for-21 (9.5%) from 3-point range.

The Bad

  • Early Foul Trouble - Getting into early foul trouble can severely damage a team’s ability to enact their gameplan. The Wildcat’s over these first 13 games have had at least four players with 2+ fouls in each game. Kevin Knox has been one of the worst in this regard. He’s averaging 2.3 personal fouls a game, but he has been one of the leading players on the team in the total amount. With the team being young it is easy for other teams to take advantage of this with smart veteran play to draw the fouls. This smart basketball generally comes with age and playing time. I think they’ll get smarter as the season goes on.
  • Kevin Knox - Lately Knox hasn’t been the player we know him to be. He started off the season looking like the undeniable leader the team needed, but as the season has gone on, he’s gone into a bit of a slump. Over the last five games, Knox has shot a very poor 18-for-54 from the field (33%) with multiple games of only 1 or 2 shots made. His individual defense has picked up which has been great for the team, and he generally attacks the boards harder than most (averaging 5.6 total rebounds per game). Coach Cal said for the Wildcats to be the team to beat they need Kevin to be “that guy.” Cal said he’s going to keep calling his number, and eventually we all hope he starts answering again soon.

The Ugly

  • Ball Movement - In the basketball era we’re currently in ball movement is key to winning a game. ISO ball and ball-dominant players have started to die out slowly or have been forced to change their game. In their last game, against Georgia, the young Cats played their most selfish ball of the season. Ball stoppers were a big problem and one of the biggest reasons the Cats narrowly escaped with a win yesterday.
    Coach Cal in an interview after the game addressed this exact problem.

“You know what a ball stopper is when you're on offense? --- well we had three ball stoppers. It was going to a guy, and he held it. Three guys guarding him, I'm shooting it anyway. How about the easy pass up the court to the guy? Nah, I'm going to wait. Then our point guard was dribbling the length of the floor and trying to shoot it. He did. Guys ahead, he just dribbled the length of the court, and he got fouled, so he thought he was good. Wait a minute. Every guy on the team and no one's passing because we're playing this way. So, we'll probably Tuesday -- they're going to be off tomorrow -- but Tuesday we're going to do 10 passes, you must pass, you cannot dribble. You must get open and pass the ball. They're going to think it's boring. This is boring. But we have to pass to each other; we have to create shots for each other.”

The Wildcats have the talent on their team to accomplish their Coaches goal, but we will have to wait and see if they heed his warnings. Maybe this game will be a wake-up call that selfish ball will not work.

Kentucky’s next game will be up against another strong SEC team, LSU. After a nail-biter in their first SEC matchup look for the Wildcats to show out in this game. It will be on Wednesday, January 3rd @ 8:30 pm EST. The game will be held down in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and you can catch the game on the SEC Network.