There are a ton of question marks as Kentucky heads to Knoxville tomorrow to face a sub-par Volunteer team. Tennessee is 12-10 on the season and 5-6 in conference play. That being said, the Wildcats could be a former shell of what they were starting to become before Nerlens Noel tore his ACL.
Kentucky will be wearing special Nike road uniforms on Saturday. Last season, the ‘Cats wore their platinum jerseys at home when they played Tennessee. It resulted in a 69-44 blow out in Rupp Arena. The Vols will be looking for a bit of revenge on another day where UK will be wearing specialty uniforms.
Jerseys aside, there are five things that I want to see from this team and from certain individuals. Here they are in no particular order.
1. Come Out Focused- The Wildcats looked completely lost against Florida. They committed 17 turnovers, 12 of them unforced, and they weren’t able to run an offesnive set to save their lives at times. Florida’s defense caused much of the havoc, but the Wildcats didn’t do themselves any favors with their sloppy passing, shooting and lazy rebounding. They need to come out focused and ready to go against Tennessee. The Vols do not pressure defensively like the Gators, therefore Kentucky should have an easier time adjusting to the atmosphere and the intensity.
2. Defensive Pressure from the Guards- Archie Goodwin has shown the ability to be a very good defensive player. He locked down Marshall Henderson and forced him to earn his points from the free throw line and he pretty much such down Elston Turner the second time they Wildcats faced the Aggies. Ryan Harrow has been a defensive liabilty and Julius Mays has had lapses. The new challenge that they face is Nerlens Noel is no longer in the middle to erase their mistakes. Willie Cauley-Stein is imposing at seven feet tall, but he is not the shot blocking prodigy that Noel was for this team. The guards will have to do a better job of stopping plays from going to the middle as well as stopping guards from driving to the middle. Cauley-Stein is the only big man left on the team. If guards go at him and cause fouls, Kentucky could be in a world of hurt.
3. Intensity- Nobody on the team has shown intensity for 40 straight minutes besides Nerlens Noel. We’ve all seen flashes from Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer, but nothing sustained. The entire team needs to come in with a killer instinct and unmatched intensity. If they take a lead on the Vols early, it could be demoralizing for their opponent.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein as a Force- He is a very good player already, but it’s time for him to be great. This is his chance to showcase his ability. WCS is extremely athletic and can go the length of the floor as well as any big man in the country. What we haven’t seen much of is Willie Cauley-Stein as an enforcer. He needs to be a presence on the glass and in the paint in order for Kentucky to be successful. And he needs to stay out of foul trouble on top of all of that. There isn’t any relief for him at the five-spot, not even a player like Eloy Vargas can come in for relief. WCS is going to have to play on a level that we haven’t seen yet. Maybe he can look at it as motivation to rise in the NBA draft.
5. Alex Poythress the Leader- I know this sounds crazy, but it needs to happen. Nerlens Noel was the leader of this team. Now, there is a void, and who better to fill it than Poythress? Alex is the most gifted athlete on the team. He has the size and the skill, he just lacks the mental toughness. He will be called upon to play multiple positions at power forward, at center and at small forward from here on out. There aren’t any other options. Remember in Billy Gillispies’ first season when Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford starting playing absolutely out of their minds and up to their full potential when their backs were against the wall? They were viewed much as Poythress has been viewed; super talented with no heart. This could be Alex Poythress’ chance to endear himself to Kentucky fans once and for all.