Kentucky Shows Growth in Win at MissouriPosted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2014
It has been a tale of two Tigers recently for Kentucky. The young Wildcats were outworked and outplayed Tuesday night versus LSU in Baton Rouge, taking it on the chin from a hungrier team. “They beat the crap out of us. They outcoached us,” John Calipari said. Four days later Kentucky found itself with another bunch of Tigers searching for a statement win, but the story this time was much different. There was growth in the Wildcats’ game as they raced out to a big lead against Missouri, and then preserved it with smart and tough play down the stretch. Based on what happened Saturday in Mizzou Arena, here are several questions that opposing SEC coaches will need to answer when playing these Wildcats.
- How do you contend with a bunch of future pros playing hard and together? Maybe it was the coaching, or maybe it was the much-ballyhooed players’-only team meeting last week in Louisiana. Whatever it was, the Wildcats came out with great effort and aggressiveness against Missouri. They got into their sets quickly and attacked the basket early in the game, as Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for eight free throw attempts in the first half. Kentucky also didn’t give up a single offensive rebound in the opening half. It’s not a good sign for future opponents that the Wildcats went into a hostile arena and responded with great energy coming off of a lackluster performance. That shows maturity and growth that should scare the rest of the league.
- Where do you focus your defense? The easy answer to this question is that teams should key on Julius Randle. He’s the most consistent and efficient offensive threat on the team, and he blows up single coverage. But against Missouri on Saturday, the Wildcats were the balanced match-up nightmare that their talent suggests they should be. James Young punished the Tigers’ sucked-in defense by hitting 4-of-7 threes and even converted on a couple of rare forays into the paint. The Harrison twins, on the other hand, used the space to drive to the rim, combining to score 35 points, only nine of which came off threes. The challenge for opposing defenses is that when Randle gets double-teamed, he can throw the ball to any of three big-bodied guards who can each make a play. The problem for Calipari has been that these three guards haven’t all played well at the same time this season. But they did against Missouri, and that could be another big stepping stone for Kentucky if they’re getting comfortable with each other.
- How do you chip into a lead? It clearly isn’t easy to win when a team gets into a hole, especially against a good team. But against Kentucky that hole might as well be an 18th-century well with no one within shouting distance, and that helplessness comes courtesy of Randle and his low post game. The freshman power forward scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half, as the Wildcats consistently fed him the ball as Missouri charged back. The Tigers simply couldn’t get as many stops as they needed to finish the comeback because Randle was grinding out offensive possessions. He doesn’t need an elaborate play to get into a favorable scoring spot — generally speaking, if he gets the ball, he can find a good opportunity to convert. This allows Kentucky to hold the ball for the majority of the shot clock without sacrificing much of its offensive flow. Dealing with the future lottery pick isn’t easy at any point in the game, but trying to body him up as the game wanes away and possessions become more valuable is an especially tall task.
The home crowd slid back into an ice-covered Columbia, Missouri, with heads hung low. But maybe they shouldn’t have. Seldom do you have a game where both teams should legitimately feel good about what happened. And while there were issues for Frank Haith’s team, there were also some positives for the Tigers to take from this loss.
- A two-man team nearly beat #11. Yes, Wes Clark had a fine game, and Missouri’s frontcourt did enough to wash out the rebounding battle, but with Earnest Ross saddled with foul trouble and shooting poorly in the second half, the Tigers’ offense was comprised of only Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson. The Wildcats knew this and were aware that both players look to drive to the right. But the duo was still able to combine for 61 points and nearly bring Missouri all the way back. This is encouraging because even if one of the Tigers’ three main scorers has an off game (as Ross did yesterday), they still could be able to beat a lot of good teams.
- Missouri’s offense can be the gift that keeps on giving. Kentucky’s transition defense and the related recoveries after made baskets were terrible in this game. A number of times Clarkson kept the Wildcats’ momentum from getting out of hand by racing down the court for a quick basket. He and Brown fueled the Tigers’ comeback in large part by driving relentlessly to the basket, but the Wildcats probably had trouble stopping it because each of their big men was in foul trouble. The foul trouble, however, was created by Missouri’s effort in attacking the basket in the first place. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation that the Tigers can use to their advantage the rest of the season.