What a difference a week makes, huh?
In our pre-game interview before Saturday’s game against Vandy, John Calipari told me this team needs to be “a defensive team.” In other words, a team that wins first and foremost with its defense. And if there was ever a tape to drive home what defensive breakdowns can do, it was the one from that Auburn loss.
Calipari’s teams have always been able to win games in which they didn’t shoot well, and until the victory at Arkansas, that had not happened this season. And that Arkansas game also underscored the thing that can ultimately take this UK team to a higher level—Skal Labissiere.
After the Ohio State game, I suggested fans should pay little attention to what Skal does again until March and give him and the coaches time to get the big man’s game back on track. Skal’s performance at Arkansas was a step in that direction, as you saw how his offensive skills could be incorporated into what UK does and also how his shot blocking could give the Cats the rim protection they have too often missed this season. Of course, the Vandy game served to underscore that the process for rebuilding Labissiere’s confidence is going to take more than one game.
Derek Willis’ emergence is also a key, because with him and/or Labissiere displaying their offensive skills, it helps open up the floor for the guards to drive, which has been this team’s number one strength from day one—and a strength that should serve UK well in those late shot clock situations that can get you beat in March Madness.
And with two wins this past week, Kentucky has a chance to have a nice run (yes, they’ll be an underdog at Kansas, but you don’t get penalized for losing there) and that could get the Cats back into the national conversation and help their chances for a top four seed on Selection Sunday.
Road wins will be hard to come by in a Southeastern Conference race in which Kentucky isn’t the dominant team and the overall depth of quality teams is much improved. So the victory at Alabama was a big one for the Wildcats.
If the Cats go undefeated at home, then I think five road wins will give them no worse than a share of the SEC title and I suspect four might do it. That kind of record ought to be enough for UK to get a top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and have a chance to play in Louisville if it wins its way through the first two rounds. Yes, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here but that’s the luxury of being a Big Blue fan in the John Calipari era.
Alex Poythress has had some very good performances in a supporting role in his time at UK but this game may have the first one in which Poythress looked like the player we saw in games two through five of his freshman year, when he joined Dwight Anderson as the only freshmen to post four consecutive games with 20 or more points. Something close to that level of play on a regular basis would give Kentucky a great chance to return to the Final Four and might well propel Poythress into the first round of the NBA draft. History says we won’t see that level of play on a regular basis but Poythress ultimately has the final word on that.
The other thing that jumped out at me in this game was the decision-making of the guards. Good choices are the norm for Tyler Ulis, but this was the highest basketball IQ performance of the year for freshmen guards Murray and Briscoe. Murray learned from how LSU trapped him on the pick-and-roll and he regularly backed out of those traps this time, kept his dribble and made winning plays, to become the first rookie since 1973 to score 20 or more in his first two SEC road games. And I loved how Briscoe started the game looking to set up teammates and then seamlessly transitioned into looking for a few shots of his own. Both players showed maturity in their games and that was good to see.
When Kentucky comes off the emotion-packed Louisville game each winter, one never knows if the Wildcats might suffer a letdown. But this UK team produced arguably its most impressive performance to date Saturday night in beating a hot Ole Miss by 23 points. But if their first SEC road test, the Cats now face an opponent that may have also played its best game of the season.
LSU won at Vanderbilt, rarely an easy thing to do, and the Tigers did it in convincing fashion. Led by super frosh Ben Simmons, LSU carved up Vandy’s defense and made it hard for the Commodores to score at the other end. When the SEC schedule came out, this next game looked like it might be Kentucky’s toughest of the conference season but the way LSU played in November and December, that analysis was brought into question—but perhaps not so much now.
One of the most encouraging things about Kentucky’s game was the spark of life we saw from rookie big man Skal Labissiere. He made some shots and attacked the offensive glass and that, along with the fan support he received, should give him a much-needed boost of confidence. We saw Tyler Ulis embrace the challenge of going up against one of the SEC’s best point guards in Stefan Moody of Ole Miss and perhaps Labissiere can embrace that same mindset when he’s on the same court as Simmons. Not that we should expect Labissiere to outplay him but it might not be the worst thing in the world to see Skal approach this game with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.
In our postgame radio interview, John Calipari said he was now coaching Labissiere like a typical freshman, rather than one he had to put into advanced classes to get him ready to leave after one season. I’ve been saying for a few weeks that fans should take that kind of attitude when it comes to Labissiere—be happy with whatever you get until March and let’s see how far he can come. I still think this team will need to get some kind of significant contribution from Labissiere to reach another Final Four but there’s enough talent around him to afford UK the luxury of letting Labissiere takes his time in getting there.
After a surprising loss to Ohio State by their Cats, Big Blue fans will have more than visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads this week—there will be a fair amount of anxiety about the annual Battle of the Bluegrass showdown with Louisville.
History says to rest easy—UK has dominated the rivalry since Calipari arrived and UK is 61-1 under Cal in non-league home games—but the Wildcats can’t count on the Rupp Arena atmosphere alone to get them a victory. Against Ohio State, Kentucky under-performed (relative to its season averages) in offensive rebound percentage, two-point field goal percentage, free throws made and attempted and points-off-turnovers.
Louisville’s stats are impressive but they’ve only played one team—Michigan State—that is ranked higher than 122nd in the kenpom.com efficiency ratings. Still, the way the Cards played in that loss on State’s home floor suggests they have what it takes to make a serious run at winning in Rupp.
To me, rebounding is the key stat for Kentucky and John Calipari has plenty of examples from last Saturday’s loss to show his guys and motivate them to get after it on the glass. My broadcast partner, Mike Pratt, has said from day one this season that the play of Alex Poythress would be the most important factor in this UK team’s long-term success and I think that’s especially true in this game. Poythress didn’t play close to his best in either loss but if we see the Alex we saw before his injury against Arizona State, then I like Kentucky’s chances a lot.
Saturday’s game at Vandy isn’t a do-or-die moment (there would be two games left to get bowl eligible), but it sure feels pretty close to an accurate assessment of the situation. These players have talked a lot about this season being different from last year’s team and that it’s “bowl game or bust”—if they truly believe that, then it’s put up or shut up time.
When horses drop out of grade 1 and 2 races into allowance company, that class relief often results in an improved performance that most would not have predicted from the way the horse performed against superior opponents. But we’re talking about humans, not horses, and the equine athletes can’t pay attention to social media, preseason goals, etc. So the key for UK may be where this team is mentally.
The Cats face a Vandy team that nearly upset Florida at The Swamp. But the week before, the ‘Dores were blown out 34-0 by Houston. The VU players that show up Saturday will likely believe they can win this game off their most recent performance so it’s up to Kentucky to “bring it” and quash that confidence. If not, the way Vandy’s defense is playing, UK will be in danger of taking a crucial loss.
The hottest topic among football fans is the quarterback position. First, Patrick Towles is not the sole source of UK’s offensive struggles, but consideration of a change is both understandable and necessary. Maybe Drew Barker could provide the spark UK desperately needs. If not, perhaps Towles would enter the game with a different approach (notice that A.J. Stamps had a season-high 11 tackles Saturday after losing his starting job).
Back in August, one could look at the UK football schedule and project that the four game stretch between October 15 and November 7 was going to be brutal, and if the Cats found their way to even one win, it would be a major accomplishment. That’s how it has played out, but for fans, it feels much different in the middle of that stretch than it did when viewing the slate back in the summer.
UK had a great chance to steal a win against Auburn, but the past two weeks have been rough, and if the oddsmakers are right, something similar could happen again this week at Georgia. The Dogs are struggling, but in terms of overall talent, there is still a great disparity that doesn’t get erased with only two or three better-than-before recruiting classes for Kentucky. Both teams are mentally beat down at the moment, but there’s a huge plus in playing at home in that scenario. Nevertheless, this matchup provides the Kentucky players with an opportunity to show what they’re made of, with a much-improved performance that sets the stage for taking advantage of a favorable schedule down the home stretch of the season. And if the Dogs are feeling sorry for themselves for how their season has gone south, then perhaps UK can do something really memorable this Saturday.
When UK was in the midst of its five-year bowl run, it had offensive and defensive lines that matched up better than it does now. Since 2008, only twice have the Cats ranked above 10th in sacks and that’s the two years that future NFL players Bud Dupree and Z’Darius Smith played together (UK ranked eighth one year and ninth in the other). And since the last bowl game in 2010, the highest the Cats have ranked in rushing offense is 11th in the SEC (figuring that sacks and rush offense are two decent ways to measure strength in the trenches). The hard reality is that it takes more than two-and-a-half years to recruit AND develop linemen.
To use the quote from former NFL coach Denny Green, the Cats “are who we thought they were”—a six-or-seven win at best. That’s a significant move forward from where this program was two years ago, and if these players can rally the troops for a finish stronger than the one most are projecting right now, the payoff of a bowl could be even better than what was expected at the start of the season. “They remember November” needs to be this team’s rallying cry right now.
The game Kentucky had last week against Notre Dame is the game I’ve been thinking for some time now that the Wildcats were going to face in the Final Four’s first game, against either Wisconsin or Arizona. As it has played out, that test from Notre Dame may serve UK quite well in its matchup with the Badgers.
Wisconsin plays in a fashion similar to the Irish, primarily in their ability to spread the floor and in their reliance on three-point shots. Having the chance to understand where Notre Dame broke down Kentucky’s defense, and having had a week to work on it, the Wildcats may now be better prepared to face Wisconsin’s offensive attack, which is the most efficient in the nation by a wide margin.
I thought Kentucky was a little nervous at the start of the Notre Dame game, so hopefully, the Wildcats will not repeat that situation on Saturday. As was the case with the Irish, Wisconsin is not a team that you want to be trailing late, because they don’t commit many turnovers, and they shoot free throws well. UK dodged that bullet by rallying to defeat the Irish, but you don’t want to press your luck.
Maybe Wisconsin has the right formula to stop the Cats’ streak. But I keep coming back to the thought that the Wildcats beat a Wisconsin team made up of mostly the same players they will see in Indy, and they did it without Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, and Tyler Ulis.
I expect a Kentucky-Duke showdown for the title on Monday.