Willie Cauley-Stein’s Success

John Calipari got a lot of mileage out of pointing out that the top players off his 2012 title team that went 1-2 in the NBA draft were ranked fourth and fifth in shots attempted. And Willie Cauley-Stein may give him a chance to make that point again.

For now, Cal can point out that Willie Cauley-Stein is starting to get national player-of-the-year buzz despite averaging seven shot attempts per game. His 77 field goal tries are second-most on the team, but only because he’s playing the most minutes—and he’s playing the most minutes because of his defense.

North Carolina’s Roy Williams talked about how Cauley-Stein impacted every area of the game last Saturday in the Cats’ decisive win over the Tar Heels. And think back to the Providence game, when Cauley-Stein locked down a perimeter player who had scored 67 points in his previous two games. LaDontae Henton managed just three points against UK.

Williams described Cauley-Stein as the “spearhead” of Kentucky’s defense and it’s a rare site to see a 7-footer be able to guard perimeter players and run the floor like a deer. Factor in some offensive improvement and that’s why Cauley-Stein is skyrocketing up the draft projection lists, to fourth in a recent one I saw.

And his success just serves to drive home the message Calipari preaches, about not letting offense and making shots define one’s play.

-Tom Leach

EKU Coach Jeff Neubauer called Kentucky the best defensive team in the modern era of college basketball after an 82-49 loss Sunday night, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to argue with him at this point.

I don’t think you’ll find many teams that can have the point guard and a big man switch on a pick the way Kentucky can with Andrew Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein. That’s the best example of why the Wildcats are so hard to score against. One could expect UK’s stellar defensive play to be a relatively consistent element, given this team’s overall size and depth. So what will determine this team’s ability to realize its full potential is its development offensively.

John Calipari says the Cats are operating at about 50-60 percent of their peak right now and that’s fine because it’s early December. Calipari says he still is not that close to figuring out the best way for this team to play in the half-court but once that happens, look out. And although UK is struggling to hit perimeter shots in recent games, I would guess you’ll see that stat improve as the overall offense develops a better flow, rhythm or whatever term you prefer to use.

One thing Calipari is pushing for is more shots—he’d like to see an additional 10 or so per game. I went back and looked at the field goal attempts for past championship teams and the Wildcats’ current average of around 60 shots per game matches up with the title teams in 2012 and 1978. The ’96 champs got up around 68 shots per game but if you go farther back, it shows how much college basketball has changed defensively. In 1958, the “Fiddlin’ Five” averaged about 77 shots per game and the ’49 “Fabulous Five” team got up 81 field goal attempts in an average outing.

 

-Tom Leach

A 5-7 record would have qualified as an optimistic projection for the Kentucky football team back in August, but given that the Wildcats started out 5-1, it’s understandable that Big Blue Nation feels a little disappointed.

In reality, though, the schedule played out about the way it should have, with the win over South Carolina being a nice bonus. Kentucky had two legit chances to get that elusive sixth win and a bowl bid, but came up short in road games against Florida and Louisville. The biggest difference in both games was a tall, playmaking wideout and that just underscores that Mark Stoops’ main mission is continuing to upgrade the recruiting for this program.

In losing 44-40 to Louisville, the Wildcats at least showed that the performances against Georgia and Tennessee were aberrations for a team that was beat down mentally and physically, from having to do something no other SEC team had to do—play eight straight games and seven of them against league foes. Depth was an issue for this team from the start and shortage was illustrated clearly in those lopsided losses to the Vols and Dogs. What Stoops and Company are doing in recruiting will address that issue over time.

I can’t say enough about how impressive Bud Dupree’s play was for the Kentucky football team and most especially, in the season’s final two weeks. We’ve often seen highly-regarded prospects like him coast through a final season, to protect themselves from injury. But Dupree showed tremendous professionalism in giving it his all from start to finish, never even acknowledging the injuries he played through because they didn’t keep him out of games. There are many reasons why he will be a great NFL player, but none more so than what he showed us in those final two games.

 

-Tom Leach

Still Time Left to Make it Happen

Just because you want to win, doesn’t mean you get to win, and the Kentucky players got a painful reminder of that lesson on Saturday at Missouri. A program undergoing a “culture change” faced off against a program in Mizzou that has already fought those battles, and in a game that was there for the taking, the Wildcats failed to grab the opportunity. If the younger members of this UK squad learn from the painful experience, better days will come sooner rather than later.

Three chances remain for UK to get that win that will make them eligible for a bowl game, starting with the final home game this Saturday against a Georgia team smarting from an upset loss to Florida. The Dogs are now facing an uphill battle to win the SEC East so Kentucky should expect a foe that will be focused and hungry. If the Wildcats don’t match that intensity, they’ll be in trouble.

Senior Bud Dupree talked last week about longing for a plane ride home after a victory, given that UK hasn’t flown home after a road win since 2009. Alas, he didn’t get it, but Dupree was one Wildcat who did “bring it” to the field at Missouri. I want the bowl game for a player like that in the same way I wanted to see a guy like Chuck Hayes get to a Final Four before his UK career ended. It can still happen for Dupree, if his teammates will follow his lead in terms of the mindset it takes to compete in a league like the SEC. Sometimes a team has to just go take what it wants. Kentucky didn’t play with that kind of mindset at Missouri, but they still have time left to make it happen.

-Tom Leach

Was Saturday’s Loss a Win for Patrick Towles?

Anybody who wondered about the “fight” left in this Kentucky team after that dismal showing at LSU, certainly got that question answered on Saturday. And number one Mississippi State’s quarterback and front seven on defense are as good as advertised. Those were two of my main takeaways from Kentucky’s 45-31 loss to the Bulldogs.

Dan Mullen is six years into his building of the MSU program and has a team loaded with talented juniors and seniors. In the last four years, the Bulldogs have put 13 players into the NFL and more are coming off this team.   Kentucky has had five NFL draft picks during that time and will add one or two more off this one. So while it’s disappointing that UK has lost two in a row after a 5-1 start, when viewed in the context of the caliber of competition, this team is still well ahead of all but the most blue-eyed optimistic predictions for this season.

Back in 2006, the UK coaches were not convinced that they had found their quarterback when the season started. But in a lopsided loss to Louisville, Andre Woodson showed the competitiveness his coaches were wanting to see and they knew they had their man at that all important position. This game may have marked a similar defining moment for Patrick Towles, who made numerous NFL-caliber throws in a matchup with MSU’s Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott.

Towles didn’t blink, especially after having a couple of passes dropped on what looked like it might have been a last-gasp drive late in the fourth quarter. When UK’s slim chance to pull out a victory mandated a quick scoring drive, Towles came thru. He ran the ball more than most might have expected but he’s very underrated in that area. And without a productive tight end to capitalize on open space in the middle of the field, Towles is perhaps the best option to take advantage of that opportunity. He still needs to shore up the intermediate passes that are so crucial to making Neal Brown’s offense click, but that should come with time.

This Saturday, he’ll be tested by a defense that excels in sacks and forcing turnovers in Missouri.   Protection for the QB has been an issue for Kentucky, but when it comes to interceptions, Towles is second-best in the SEC at throwing the fewest picks-per-pass-attempt. If Towles has another big game at Missouri, I think there’s a great chance UK comes home bowl eligible.

 

-Tom Leach

Rising Up After Getting Knocked Down

Dealing with doubters and adversity is one thing and dealing with success and hype is another and a Kentucky football team in a “culture change” mode got itself a valuable learning experience at LSU on Saturday night.

When the Wildcats went to The Swamp in September, nobody was giving them a chance against Florida. This time, these same players were hearing everyone from their own fans to ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit picking them to win and hearing how a victory could bring the College Gameday show to Lexington, etc. And then they got smacked down by a talented and focused LSU squad, still stinging from back-to-back SEC losses a few weeks back, and playing in the stadium known as “Death Valley” to opponents. But as Rocky Balboa said, it’s not about how many times you get knocked down—it’s about how many times you get back up and keep fighting.

This Saturday, when top-ranked Mississippi State comes to Lexington, the Wildcats get the chance to show the nation, via CBS’s marquee game of the week, that what was seen down at LSU is not the true picture of this season for UK. And it’s important that they take advantage of that opportunity, to send a message to the Big Blue Nation as well as potential recruits.

Mark Stoops was candid at his Monday news conference, talking about how they must make sure the team’s confidence was not shaken, and noting how the staff got “too cute” with that attempted trick play on the opening kickoff. But he also noted that he saw some encouraging signs, like how UK played versus LSU’s power running game. The final numbers don’t reflect it but Kentucky actually played some of its best-run defense of the season when the game was still in doubt in the first two-plus quarters. Fatigue and a lopsided score wore down that defense but the improvement shown earlier offers encouragement against a State team that has rushed for at least 201 yards in every game this season.

MSU ranks last in the SEC in pass defense while LSU was number one and State has turned it over 13 times in six games so there are some stats that offer hope in helping craft a script for a Kentucky showing that would surprise the skeptics.

And a little history lesson wouldn’t hurt. Back in 2006, Kentucky was demolished in similar fashion at LSU, losing 49-0, and only three weeks later, the Cats were celebrating an upset of Georgia. Playing in the SEC offers regular opportunities to redefine one’s self but it’s up to these players and coaches to seize the day and grab that opportunity.

-Tom Leach

Will The Wildcats Make It To A Bowl Game?

A win at LSU this Saturday night would be the sixth for the UK football team, making the Wildcats eligible for a bowl game, and to get it, the key number figures to be ‘7’.

That’s the number worn by LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who is coming off the best game of his young career, with 140 rushing yards in the Tigers comeback win at Florida. And it will be up to the front seven of Kentucky’s defense to slow him down because if they don’t, it will be very hard to UK to get this win.

Mark Stoops says he saw improvement in the play of his inexperienced linebackers last Saturday but that was against a team that ranked last in rushing in the Sun Belt Conference. LSU is one of the best rushing teams in the SEC and coach Les Miles will be looking to protect a rookie quarterback by controlling the line of scrimmage. And Kentucky has had issues with the power rushing attacks of both Florida and South Carolina.

But one of the most impressive things about Stoops’ very young team is how resilient and combative it is. Yes, the Gators and the Gamecocks pushed them around, but they found ways to force some turnovers on defense and make big plays on offense so that they had a chance to win both games. That speaks to the “culture change” that Stoops has talked about frequently but it’s surprising to see it happening as early as the midpoint of this staff’s second year on the job.

Players and coaches have to stay focused on one game at a time but fans and media can look down the road without peril and a win at LSU makes the talk of UK contending for the SEC East title legit. If the Cats just split their next two games and then win at Missouri, they could go into the Georgia game on November 8 knowing that a win over the Bulldogs might well secure the division title. From everything these players say, they clearly think bigger than just getting “bowl eligible” and that’s the kind of mindset it takes to do things other don’t think you can do.

-Tom Leach