The win at Ole Miss, while a big step for this current collection of Wildcats, won’t mean anything if they don’t use what they learned from that victory and apply it going forward. For 40 minutes, the Cats actually played as well as they thought they would at the beginning of the season. Some in the Big Blue Nation would point out that Kentucky allowed the Rebels to go on a 16-0 run in the second half, but I’d counter with the fact that they closed out a tough opponent at home, even with giving up a big lead. And that’s a huge step from the game from Alabama just a few weeks ago.
The one constant this season, and everyone knows this, has been Nerlens Noel. Against Ole Miss, Noel anchored the Kentucky defense, swatting away a school record 12 shots and changing at least a dozen more. As we all witnessed with Anthony Davis last year, a shot blocker that even leads to opponents NOT driving the lane is a huge benefit to have on defense. And when the Cats get their defensive rotations down better, more of Noel’s blocked shots will lead to better opportunities on the offensive end. And like Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist before him, Noel is ready to play from tip to horn and we’ve finally seen some dividends from Noel’s leadership as Alex Poythress has stepped up his game as well, especially diving on the floor for loose balls.
The change from high school to college is not an easy one. And it can’t be easy while you have to adjust to college life under the microscope that is University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball. So, more than most, I’ve not let Poythress’s or Archie Goodwin’s growing pains get me down. Why? Because their talent is undeniable. Finally, down in Oxford, we got to see how great they can both play when they slow down and play within Coach Cal’s team concepts. Poythress attacked the basket and, for stretches, looked like he finally realized that he has a decided physical advantage over most people that try to guard him. And Goodwin turned in one of the more efficient 24 points that you’ll ever see in college basketball.
After a few games where it looked like he lost his mojo, Ryan Harrow looked, once again, like the guy in full control of the offense. He looked very comfortable, especially when the Cats needed him to help stave off a furious Ole Miss rally. Backcourt mate Julius Mays’s three point shot returned and, as a result, he stretched the defense, giving the Cats more room and better angles to attack the basket. Speaking of which….
Kyle Wiltjer. He’s not going to be a lockdown defender and I don’t think he needs to be for this team to reach its potential. What he has to be, what he must be, is a scorer. And be more than just a spot up jump shooter, Wilter needs to put the ball on the floor and use his size to score and distribute. Against the Rebels, I witnessed two things that I’d never thought I’d see. First, Wiltjer lead a fast break, delivering a spot on pass to Jarrod Polson for the lay up. And secondly, I, along with everyone else watching, saw Kyle Wiltjer put the ball on the deck and slam it home with a two hands. If is offensive game is going to continue to be that diverse, I really like where this team is headed.
One game in January usually doesn’t mean much, unless you take the lessons learned and use them going forward. Every sports team has that one point in the season where they decide to be great, where the players come together and say, “this is what we need to do to win” and then do it. Last year, the Cats turned the corner after the IU loss. In 2011, that team didn’t dig in until the SEC Tournament. So, there’s still time for these Cats to take their games up a notch and make the Ole Miss game their defining moment. So, Cats, show us… show us all what you’re working with.