Uncertainties About Guard Play Remain After Kentucky Escapes LSU

Posted by Will Tucker on January 27th, 2013

Will Tucker is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s Kentucky-LSU game in Lexington.

The name on the lips of everyone in Rupp Arena on Saturday was that of Alex Poythress, after his Wildcats dispatched a slumping LSU team, 75-70. The mercurial forward, whose production and motor had yet to match the expectations set by his high draft stock, notched his first college double-double with 20 point and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes. The performance absolved him of the forgettable 15 minutes he logged before fouling out in last week’s loss to Alabama. It also discouraged much discussion of the somewhat perplexing showing from Kentucky’s backcourt trio of Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays, and Archie Goodwin. While John Calipari’s guards each put together efficient stat lines and rebounded from a (generally) dismal game in Tuscaloosa, their disjointed half court execution left several lingering questions about Kentucky’s guard play.

(Credit Clay Jackson)

The backcourt is still a source of headaches for Calipari (Credit Clay Jackson)

While there was plenty of blame to go around after Kentucky’s ugly 59-55 loss to Alabama, much of it laid with Harrow and Goodwin for shooting their team out of the game. The two combined to score 13 points on 5-24 shooting (20.8%), and dished out as many turnovers as assists (4). For his part, Mays hit four of his five three-point attempts and was the only Wildcat with a positive +/- rating in what was only the second time he had scored in double digits since mid-December. John Calipari’s backcourt triumvirate was as much of a wildcard heading into yesterday’s game as Poythress. That former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey would be looking to exact revenge on his home turf for two losses against Kentucky last year placed even more pressure on his would-be defenders.

The Wildcats’ backcourt set the tone early with confident jump shots and nimble cuts to the basket that opened up uncontested layups. As Nerlens Noel artfully backed down Andrew Del Piero in the post early in the game, it seemed it was only a matter of time before LSU coach Johnny Jones would elect to pack the paint, leaving Harrow and Goodwin better looks at the basket from outside.

That became moot as an ill-fated LSU press allowed Kentucky to get out in transition and exploit its athleticism. More importantly, UK’s backcourt advanced the ball without turning it over, allowing Poythress and Noel to establish position before the Tigers could set up their halfcourt defense. UK scored 32 points in the paint as they built a 15 point lead two minutes before intermission, and Harrow managed the game patiently without hunting for shots. While the backcourt trio was a combined 1-5 from beyond the arc by halftime, Goodwin was the only one of the three to shoot below 50%, and the Cats had shot a ludicrous 57.6% from the field as a team.

If the story of the first half had been the dramatic resurrection of UK’s high-octane offense, the script in the second period was one of stagnation for UK’s guards and Ryan Harrow in particular. The fluid half court sets that had produced open driving lanes gave way to languid possessions with little ball movement, and the high-percentage shots of the first half were increasingly replaced by long jump shots with the shot clock winding down. The Cats only hit eight field goals on 42% shooting in the second period, allowing LSU to chew away at a 15-point deficit. After only coughing it up five times in the first half, Kentucky ended the game with a season-high 16 turnovers and their worst assist/turnover ratio of the season (0.44). Only at Vanderbilt did the Wildcats turn it over at a higher rate: they gave it away on 23.5% of their possessions. Archie Goodwin was the only UK player to score more than one field goal in the second half (although Poythress remained highly productive by getting to the free throw line). In fact, the Cats scored one fewer points from the charity stripe (16) than they did from the field (17).

Goodwin was the only guard who didn’t disappear after halftime, scoring 10 points and grabbing 4 scrappy rebounds in the second half. He earned his backcourt’s only assist in the second half; the Wildcats would end the game with only 7 of their 27 field goals assisted. The backcourt accounted for four of them, which were overshadowed by eight turnovers. He also looked more comfortable than Harrow in running the offense. On one possession with less than nine minutes remaining, Goodwin demanded the ball at the top of the three-point line and directed traffic, resulting in a gorgeous Ryan Harrow driving floater from the corner. It underscored how much more comfortable Harrow looked moving off the ball yesterday.

To that point, Harrow continued to be a liability at times in the LSU game, despite his efficiency on paper. The aforementioned bucket was his only in four second-half attempts, and he failed to orchestrate any activity in UK’s halfcourt offense down the stretch, to the chagrin of an anxious crowd at Rupp. Harrow had a hard time staying on the floor, logging only 10 second half minutes as LSU dug itself out of its first-half hole. It wasn’t an issue of foul trouble––Harrow didn’t foul once––but rather a lack of urgency and questionable decision-making that led Calipari to bench him repeatedly. For example, less than a minute and a half after Harrow came in to replace Julius Mays following a technical at 5:56, he carelessly lost the ball out of bounds. Coach Cal immediately replaced him with Mays––despite his four fouls––and Anthony Hickey drained a three on the following possession to cut the lead to five.

After a particularly tepid offensive possession, Calipari elected to sub in former walk-on Jared Polson on defense, pulling Harrow with 1:14 remaining in a two-possession game. In fact, Polson played more second half minutes (11) than the starting point guard. When asked about the substitution after the game,Calipariclaimed Polson’s size made him a more ideal defender. Which validates an observation made by a fan behind press row: what does it say about Harrow that an offensive-minded reserve is the better defensive option in crunch time?

This is Calipari’s problem, as much as Harrow’s. Sure, UK advanced to 4-2 in conference yesterday and Alex Poythress seems to be turning a corner in dramatic fashion. But the Cats came dangerously close to a home loss to the last-place team in the SEC that could have crushed their tournament aspirations. Jared Polson won’t be the answer against Scottie Wilbekin, Phil Pressey or Jarvis Summers. Calipari lamented in his post-game comments that he can’t impress on some of his players that “[they’ve] got to change their attitude and [they’ve] got to change their habits.” While Poythress has graduated from that group, Harrow seems to still be a work in progress. If UK’s starting guards can play within themselves and manage the offense the way they were in the first half yesterday, there’s no reason UK can’t finish with fewer than six losses in the SEC and comfortably make the NCAA Tournament field. Conversely, the second half provides a blueprint of exactly how the Wildcats can play themselves out of the tournament, highlighted by poor point guard play and a half-court complacency that obfuscates the overwhelming talent in their frontcourt.

Will Tucker (124 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. Fan of tacos, maps, and the 30-second shot clock. Not a fan of comments sections, bad sportswriting.

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