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

Kentucky vs. Louisville: What’s In Store?

Did you hear that Kentucky and Louisville are playing each other again Friday night? I was on a national radio show today, and I told the host that worker productivity will not only suffer on game day in this situation, but all week long here in the state of Kentucky.

Both teams are better than they were when they met in late December, a game Kentucky won by seven at Rupp Arena. But the keys remain the same—for the Cards, it’s scoring points off turnovers and making three-point shots. The more they have to face Kentucky’s length in a half court set and inside the three-point line, the better it is for Big Blue.

Kentucky must maximize its advantage in size on both ends of the floor and Willie Cauley-Stein is a huge key for Kentucky. When he’s defending the way he has in the postseason, blocking shots and creating insecurity for the opponent, it leads to a few more easy baskets than the Wildcats were getting for most of the season. Louisville is a good defensive team, so UK must also maximize its size advantage with second-chance points.

That was a big part of the formula for rallying to beat Wichita State. Kentucky doubled its points-in-the-paint total in the second half versus the first and the second-chance points tripled. Kentucky’s young players must avoid being seduced into trading three’s with the Cardinals because that is not UK’s game.

UofL did not defend Randle very well last time, putting the Cardinals in an early hole. Expect that to change, so it’s imperative that Randle continue to pass out of traps the way he did in notching six assists against Wichita State.

Kentucky is the first team to eliminate an unbeaten team from the NCAA Tournament twice. And when the ’75 Cats turned that trick against Indiana, their confidence soared. That was a senior-laden group, but I expect the same surge for these freshmen and sophomores and that should make UK a very tough team to beat in Indianapolis.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Cats Show Potential in SEC Tournament

Whether it was “the tweak,” a more physical brand of play, karma or some other mysterious “X” factor, the Kentucky basketball team looked like a 180-degree opposite of the one that we saw in the final two weeks of the regular season.  And the team that came up just one point short of upsetting top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament final is a team that can make some noise in March Madness.

Andrew Harrison’s play at point guard was markedly improved, as he set personal bests in assists against LSU and then against Georgia.  For the most part, he picked his spots well for taking shots and he did a marvelous job of quarterbacking his squad.  Great guard play has been a constant on John Calipari’s best teams so if that trend continues–plus his brother’s much-improved perimeter shooting–Kentucky is headed in the right direction.

Often this season, I have cited the 1992 Michigan team as good comparison for this Kentucky group, because the Wolverines started five freshmen that season.  There was no Big Ten Tourney in those days so Michigan finished its regular season with three straight wins but it had lost three of its previous five.  And heading into March Madness, that team had one less overall loss than these Wildcats and one more conference loss.  Michigan was seeded sixth that year but it gained some momentum in the early stages of the tournament, the talented rookies fed off that, and Michigan made it all the way to the title game.

I’m not predicting that for Kentucky because the Wildcats have yet to show the consistency to keep straight good performances together but three in a row last week was a good start.  Will the Cats make a surprising Final Four run?  Most would say “no” but CAN it happen–absolutely.

I think you’ll see Kentucky still playing when the NCAA Tourney field is cut to 16.

 

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

What’s in Store for the Wildcats?

The last time Atlanta’s Georgia Dome played host to the SEC Tournament, the 2011 Kentucky men’s basketball team produced one of its best three-game stretches of the season and parlayed it into a Final Four run.

Now, that UK team finished the regular season strong while this one has limped to the finish line. But every season, there are stories of teams who rediscover their best form at tournament time. That’s the kind of story these Wildcats hope to write, but how can they make it happen?

I think the key is Kentucky’s offense and at least the Wildcats showed some meaningful improvement in the second half of that game at Florida.

A veteran-laden team like the Gators exposes Kentucky’s defensive lapses better than most opponents. The best example of that came after the Cats cut a 21-point halftime lead to six with 12 minutes remaining. Scottie Wilbekin swished a dagger of a three-point shot when the Cats misplayed a pick-and-roll situation (a play that was a key element of the scouting report, but which UK defenders struggled to execute frequently).

Defense has never been this team’s strong suit at any point this season. However, until the last two-and-a-half weeks of the season, the Wildcats ranked in or just outside the nation’s top 10 in offensive efficiency. So I looked at arguably the best stretch of the season for UK, threes games during the holiday break in which the Cats handled two conference champions and then blew out an SEC foe.

Against Belmont, Louisville (the only ranked team UK has beaten), and Mississippi State, Kentucky averaged 84 points per game and averaged getting 47 points per game in the paint. In those three contests, UK shot 59 percent on attempts inside the three-point line, averaged only 10 turnovers per game, and outscored their opponents by an average of nine points a night on second-chance points.

One of the few positives out of the thumping at Florida on Saturday was the offensive performance in the second half. UK shot 54 percent from the field, including 58 percent on two-point shots. They had only three turnovers (with four assists), outscored Florida by five on second-chance points and 28-18 on points-in-the-paint. You’ll notice that those numbers match up quite well with that late December-early January stretch.

Until Julius Randle came alive late in the first half, Kentucky was slogging through yet another sub-30 percent first half of shooting. When you miss as many shots as the Cats have been missing, you look tentative, timid or whatever other word one wants to use.

Kentucky’s best hope for having some fun in March is to keep playing offense the way it did in the second half against the Gators, while hopefully coming to a better understanding of time-and-score situations, to know the difference between good shots and bad shots. At least twice after cutting that lead to six and putting some pressure on the Gators, UK players took a shot six seconds into a possession. And there were at least four scoreless possessions when a UK player drew a crowd of defenders, only to force a bad shot rather than finding teammates who were open and should have been visible.

Dakari Johnson’s low post scoring is something to build on, as is getting Randle an opportunity to work in space more often (taking and making a few jumpers would do wonders for him in that area). During that highly-productive stretch we referenced earlier, Alex Poythress averaged nine points per game and it would be nice to see him get back to dunking as many balls as possible (he has only one during this late-season offensive slide).

I’d also love to see Dominique Hawkins spend this week shooting as many jumpers in his free time as he can. His defensive skills could really help this team, but his absence of offensive confidence leads opponents to not guard him and offenses don’t work going four on five. The shots he passes up are shots he made in carrying Madison Central to a Sweet 16 title last March.

 

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach

Randle’s Evolution This Season

Julius Randle has been Kentucky’s best player from day one, but in Saturday’s 77-76 overtime win over LSU; we saw examples of Randle’s evolution from great talent to great player.

At Ole Miss, he dominated a game that Kentucky needed, on the heels of the loss to Florida. And when the Rebels’ late run got them within six, it was Randle who scored a contested basket in the paint to stem the tide. John Calipari said in our postgame interview that he considered calling timeout, but he saw a look in Randle’s eyes that told him the big fella would take care of business.

Coming off that big game and facing an LSU team that held him to a season-low six points, the Randle from earlier this season might have taken the matchup as a personal one, to send the Tigers a message about that performance in January. A more mature Randle instead opted not to force things in a matchup that wasn’t favorable for him to score big. He committed only one turnover, blocked two shots and was a beast on the boards, including the game-winning put back. And did you notice late in overtime how Randle demanded to be the one to guard Johnny O’Bryant? First, he forced O’Bryant into a turnover, and then after walling up O’Bryant in the low post—leading to an Aaron Harrison blocked shot—it was Randle who snatched the loose ball out of the traffic. Those are winning plays in a close game like that one.

Calipari has said Randle is a great passer, but not always a “willing” passer. Now, we’re seeing him starting to look for opportunities to give up the ball when congestion forms around him. There are times when it’s in UK’s best interest for Randle to look to score and other times when his focus needs to be more on things like rebounding, passing, and defending. And in the latter situations, there’s a good chance he’ll still find his way to 12 to 15 points per game. That kind of Julius Randle makes UK a much harder team to guard.

For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com

—Tom Leach