Do-or-die Game at Vandy?

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).

-Tom Leach

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.

-Tom Leach


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.

-Tom Leach

The experts say the NCAA Tournament is about “matchups”—does the opponent do something well that is a weakness for your team. When it comes to UK and West Virginia, it looks like a bad matchup for the Mountaineers, but it’s up to the Wildcats to go out tonight and make it true.

West Virginia’s all about the full-court press and scoring points off the turnovers it forces. But this Kentucky team is in the top 10 percent of the teams in the nation in terms of fewest turnovers per game. And only two teams all season have outscored UK in points-off-turnovers, as Kentucky averages 18 points-per-game off turnovers by the opponent—only two-points-per-game less than WVU.

If you handle the press and minimize the damage done by turnovers, then West Virginia’s defensive numbers look only average. Since good teams usually have good guards, that is why WVU is only 2-7 against teams seeded three-or-higher in this tournament.

One thing is certain—Bob Huggins’ team is not going to be intimidated, so the Wildcats will have to take what they think belongs to them. The Mountaineers did some trash-talking yesterday, and this Kentucky team has taken it personally when opponents have “woofed” at them this season. Is West Virginia different? We’ll see.


-Tom Leach

The Phrase “Good Loss” Is No Longer In The Lexicon of Big Blue Nation

34-0 and six to go. The phrase “good loss” is no longer in the lexicon of Big Blue Nation. If you thought the Wildcats needed to lose a game to relieve pressure, that debate is now moot. And I was never in that camp, because this team shows no sign of feeling a burden with being unbeaten, so why not try to make history.

I was reading an article this week about the ’76 Indiana team and players like Quinn Bucker and Tom Abernathy on that team said it wasn’t a perfect season, but the championship they were denied the year before is what drove them to accomplish what they did. Ironically, it was Kentucky’s upset of an undefeated Hooiser team in 1975 that provided that fuel for their fire. And players on UK’s title teams in ’96 and ’78 will tell you that losing in regional finals the year before is what motivated them most of all.

At the SEC Tournament, Willie Cauley-Stein talked about a meeting among players at the hotel the night the Wildcats lost in the NCAA title game to UConn and how they discussed coming back to finish the job. And as the Wildcats prepare for what they will hope will be a six-game championship run, it was players from that game—WCS and the Harrison twins—who played the best overall basketball last week in Nashville. It’s “game on” for them, and as the school song, they are “right for the fight today.”

I don’t see any serious challengers for Kentucky in its Midwest Region bracket. My contest sheet has the Wildcats dispatching Manhattan, Purdue, Maryland and Notre Dame to reach the Final Four in Indy. Once there, make it UK over Arizona in the semifinal and Duke in the final, to make it 40-0 for a ninth national championship banner.

This Kentucky squad is a great example of “team” basketball, but for what the Wildcats have accomplished, I was hoping a guy like Willie Cauley-Stein would get some individual recognition in the postseason awards, and it’s good to see that happening.

WCS has been a first-team All-America pick on every team I’ve seen thus far, and he may end up being the fourth consensus AA selection in the Calipari era despite not averaging in double figures in points or rebounds.  Cauley-Stein doesn’t even lead in blocked shots for this team because the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns has enabled Calipari to use the 7-foot-tall Cauley-Stein more frequently to lock down perimeter players.

Kentucky has accomplished what it has primarily as a result of its suffocating defense and Cauley-Stein is the player who keys that part of UK’s game.  Just look at the matchup with Arkansas, when an early block by Cauley-Stein set the tone for the Wildcats’ dominance–and he did it by going from the top of the key to pinning a shot on the backboard in the time it took a pass to travel from one Arkansas player to another under the hoop.

That’s the thing with Cauley-Stein–you have to watch him play and not pay attention to numbers  in order to appreciate his impact on Kentucky’s success, and it’s good to see that voters are recognizing this.

With that said, the most important player for Kentucky to achieve its goal of winning a ninth national title may be Towns.  The longer a season goes and the more tape opposing coaches have, the more they find ways to attack your strength.  Kentucky will invariably encounter a team or two on its tournament run that deal with UK’s defense well enough to shoot a percentage higher and to have a chance to win.

Those are the games that UK needs to be able to win with its offense and it seems that Kentucky is increasingly at its best when that offense flows through Towns in the low post.  Florida threw him an early curve by trapping him in a fashion that denied his go-to move of a right-handed hook shot but that will prove to be a valuable learning experience.  Towns’ passing skills are emerging and his ability to be a go-to scorer and also find open teammates when the defense collapes makes UK’s offense more potent.

As soon as Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison start knocking down threes at a higher rate, and I expect that to happen soon, Kentucky’s inside-outside combo will be lethal.

-Tom Leach

Preach on, Jay Bilas.

On last Saturday’s “College Gameday” show on ESPN, Bilas talked about how Kentucky is doing things the right way, in everything from sharing the basketball and playing hard to avoiding off-court missteps. And he said such a program would be lavished with praise if it was happening someplace other than Lexington.

At Georgia, Kentucky once again demonstrated that when it is challenged, this team of immensely talented individuals players always pulls together to defeat its foe with a collective will. With the perfect season in serious jeopardy midway through the second half, the Wildcats had found a way to score consistently with Karl-Anthony Towns but they had to find a way to get stops or Georgia was going to win. And on seven consecutive possessions, Kentucky kept UGA from scoring and the game was won.

It’s only when asked about that these players acknowledge their potential history-making nature of their season but Calipari has admitted that these players want that special legacy more than than admit. It had been three weeks, since the comeback win at LSU, since the Wildcats’ streak had been seriously threatened, in the final five mintues of a close game. You could argue that seeing perfection coming closer on the horizon would drive them to excellence but there was also the chance it would cause them to play with a fear of losing. There was no sign of that mindset at Georgia.

Credit Calipari for addressing that issue in his halftime talk. And credit him for continuing to preach that a loss is not the end of the world. He’s been down this road before and he knows the tone a coach needs to set to keep his players from focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process of getting there.

At this point, the biggest risk to UK’s winning streak is Kentucky. If the Cats “bring it”–preferably from the start but at the least, when the outcome is in doubt–then they likely will not run into an opponent until the Elite Eight or later that is maybe good enough to beat them in that mode.

-Tom Leach