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Losing streak over, winning streak initiated: Don’t look now, but UK might be figuring this thing out

Following a 1-6 start, including a pair of excruciating losses in their own way to Notre Dame and Louisville, Big Blue has won their first two conference games to start the new year on a high note. What’s worked and what needs to improve to truly turn this weird season around?

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Kentucky
Kentucky sits at 2-0 in conference play with three of their next four games on the road. They’re starting to turn the corner (slowly), but how can they truly turn the season around and salvage a 1-6 start?
Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As if living in the world today wasn’t strange enough, watching Kentucky win their season opener and then lose six consecutive games to head into the new calendar year was just the cherry on top of the crap sundae that’s been 2020 for a lot of the Big Blue Nation.

But, that’s why many talking heads always remind viewers that championships aren’t won in November and December. It’s a long season and for the first time this year, the gears are churning towards a Kentucky turnaround after one of the worst starts in school history.

The process is just beginning, but the Cats are starting to gain some traction in turning their season around with two wins in a four-day span on the road at Mississippi State (a thorn in Big Blue’s side in the pre-Calipari days) and a nail-biting 77-74 victory over Vanderbilt at home to sit at 2-0 in SEC play with a tough four-game stretch coming that includes three games on the road.

Although the conference isn’t as strong as its been in recent seasons, the Cats really needed to pick up a couple of victories in winnable games as they head into a stretch that includes a trip to Florida (the site of Kentucky’s most improbable victory in a long time last season), along with trips to Auburn and Georgia.

Add in the news on Thursday night from Keion Brooks Jr. that he was officially cleared by Kentucky’s medical personnel and the arrow’s starting to point up slowly but surely.

But, how have things changed over the last few games since a pair of tough losses to in-state rival Louisville, an almost-comeback against Notre Dame and a game that got away from them in Cleveland against North Carolina? Let’s dive into that, starting with the insertion of a Bluegrass favorite.

When you have a shooter sitting on your bench and then finally decide to use him, that tends to helps matters and Dontaie Allen has certainly been helpful

In 19 total minutes across four games this season, Dontaie Allen took just six shots.

In the last four halves of basketball, Allen has played 64 total minutes and has scored 37 points on 23 total shot attempts, including a 7-for-11 day from long range at Mississippi State this past weekend.

Isn’t it nice when you have a legitimate floor-spacer that can pop in a set and drain triples?

The breakout performance from Allen was not only needed with no Terrence Clarke in the rotation, but it put on display why Allen is so beloved among BBN members. The kid can flat-out shoot the basketball when he gets going. You don’t score over 3,000 points in high school by being a mediocre shooter.

This play in particular is what helps keep him on the floor. When you can utilize the high ball-screen, a frequent feature of Kentucky’s half-court offense, and teams have to pay attention to a humongous roller like Olivier Sarr and a sharpshooter in Allen, it makes it hard to defend everything on the floor.

The nice thing about Allen’s recent kerplosion of points is that it’s not just him spotting up or just standing in the corner waiting to hit open shots.

Case and point:

You can easily forget that Dontaie Allen is 6-foot-6 and has a clip. It’s been a while since he’s showcased his talents.

The emphasis on this is, you almost forget, especially being that it’s been two years since Allen played competitive basketball due to injuries, that he’s 6-foot-6 and doesn’t need to be completely open to get his shot. That height is a difference maker, just like Allen’s ability to score at every level on the court.

Another example:

Vandy’s not the most imposing defense in the conference, but Kentucky’s guards did a better job (compared to the rest of this season) getting their feet into the lane.

Allen probably won’t be asked to handle the basketball as much as him, but there’s a Tyler Herro-like feel to watching him operate offensively. He’ll have a reputation as a shooter just like Boy Wonder did, but he can give you more than that by being able to put the ball on the deck and drive, too.

My personal favorite bucket from the Mississippi State game in particular was this one:

Just like in boxing, all it takes is a little jab.

I loved this shot for a few reasons:

  1. Look at the score. Look at the time. That’s a big shot.
  2. He’s not just a spot-up shooter. The jab step/catch while pulling it back into his shot was a great move to get his shot because he used the defender’s momentum against him to get the space needed.
  3. He got the space, but didn’t need a ton of it. A big-shot maker and a tough-shot maker.

It helps when your prized transfer market piece is playing like he was expected to

After almost pulling the Cats all the way back from a near insurmountable deficit at home against Notre Dame on Dec. 12 with 22 points and seven rebounds, Sarr registered more fouls (8) than total points (3) in 41 total minutes against North Carolina and Louisville.

That two-game stretch was beyond horrific, but the last two-game stretch? He’s scored 38 points with 19 rebounds and four blocks.

Olivier Sarr has seemed to find his groove again after two poor performances against UNC and Louisville.

The big thing with Sarr lately has been his fluid jumper that came in clutch in a couple key moments against the Bulldogs and was on display multiple times in an impressive 24-point outing on Tuesday. It was no secret that Sarr had a little bit of range inside the arc, but he’s tried to help open up the floor for the Cats by shooting from deep as well.

Sarr shot just 1-of-7 from deep all season with Wake Forest. He’s already doubled his make total (2) on three less attempts through just nine games this season. Three of those four attempts have come just in the last two games.

Olivier Sarr doesn’t really shoot from long range, but he hasn’t been afraid to step out there lately.

It’s been a little hit-or-miss with Sarr, especially after back-to-back disappointing performances against UNC and the Cards, but these last two games have displayed his value and why he was so coveted this past offseason. He’s still the measuring stick as to how far this team can go.

A quiet, but important factor in Kentucky’s improvements lately: the play of Jacob Toppin

Many, including myself, didn’t think Jacob Toppin would see the floor this season for the Cats. It’s probably a good thing that group of us that had those thoughts doesn’t coach this program.

In the first six games of the season, Toppin averaged just 11.8 minutes per game and had almost as many turnovers (5) as made field goals (6). Redshirting him was looking like the correct option, but not as of late.

During these last three games, Toppin has been a jolt off the Kentucky bench, averaging 20 minutes an outing while averaging 7.3 points and over five rebounds a game, including a key six-point, six-rebound performance against Vanderbilt that could be summed up by this particular sequence of events.

Kentucky got outhustled for much of this game, so to see Toppin beat everybody down the floor for two and then get the ball right back was a welcomed sight.

Also, the guy that set the solid backscreen to free up Davion Mintz for the go-ahead 3-pointer from the left corner on Tuesday night inside of the final minute? Yeah, that was Obi’s little brother.

This play to give Kentucky the lead may have seemed simple, but the execution on the backscreen was crucial from Toppin to free up Mintz for an open look at the rim.

Oh, and the guy that stoned Scotty Pippen Jr. at the rim with Vandy down three on the next possession down the floor? That was also Toppin.

Jacob Toppin’s energy is going to keep him on the floor for a lot of minutes for the rest of this season. It feels like he’s establishing his role as the Energizer Bunny off the UK bench.

Other notables moving forward

  • Depth isn’t the end-all, be-all, but having Terrence Clarke back soon would be nice, seeing as Keion Brooks Jr.’s debut is on the horizon. This team hasn’t been at full strength all season, which is part of the reason for the slow start. (There’s still the business at hand of Cam’Ron Fletcher’s return to action after some time away from the program.)
  • Isaiah Jackson has an incredibly-high ceiling and I’m a big fan of his, but he has to be able to stay on the floor. It didn’t take him long to become one of the nation’s best shot-blockers, but when you’ve fouled out of two of the last four games and aren’t exactly known as a versatile offensive piece, it’s hard to keep you on the floor. If he can avoid the silly reach-in calls and fouls on the other end of the court, he’s a true anchor and a total shot-eraser at the rim.
  • Davion Mintz and Devin Askew have both put in a pair of good performances in these past two games. Askew finished with 11/3/3 while battling early foul trouble and Mintz drew the initial Pippen Jr. assignment on Tuesday and did a great job making him feel uncomfortable during his shift guarding the sophomore floor general, along with hitting the big shot. Kentucky turned the ball over just twice against Vandy despite tough shooting nights for both guards. It’s amazing how much better an offense looks when you’re not turning the ball over 16 times, huh?
  • The Vandy game was weird. Not only did the Kentucky Wildcats register their worst offensive rebounding percentage in a game (14.7%, five total), it was their worse performance defensively, according to BartTorvik’s adjusted defensive rating (110.7). But, it was their best performance in terms of turnovers (3.0%) all season, along with their highest free-throw rate of the season (58.2) and tying their best adjusted offensive rating since the opener (112.9).