On Tuesday night, the University of Kentucky Men’s basketball team fell to the Michigan State Spartans 78-74 at Chicago’s United Center in the Statefarm Champions Classic. It was the first regular season matchup of 1 vs 2 ranked teams in nearly four years and the game did not disappoint. After falling down big early in the first half, the Wildcats rebounded in the second half, closing to within two before a tip in by MSU put the Spartans up four with just a few seconds left. Was it disappointing to not get the win? Absolutely. Are there lessons to be learned from the game to help Kentucky going forward? Double absolutely.
At this point, I’m going to write a letter to UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart to force him and head coach John Calipari hire a free throw shooting coach. Like Indiana fans reliving past glory of a generation ago, the story every year for a Cal coached team is free throw shooting. As a team, this team is proving to be the worst of his Kentucky teams (so far) shooting a dreadful 20-36 from the line. That HAS to improve. And while these Cats don’t need to become Kyle Macys or Travis Fords, they have to to do better. With the frontcourt depth giving Michigan State fits, the Cats could not capitalize on the Spartan foul trouble by converting at a higher rate, leaving free throws on the top of the game’s Wildcats’ What Ifs.
Something even more unacceptable was the Wildcats’ transition defense, or the lack thereof. The Cats gave up a lot of uncontested layups to the Spartans. The guys in green scored off turnovers, missed shots and even wore, MADE shots, simply because the Wildcats couldn’t be bothered to hustle back on defense. Someone on the floor is going to have to led the charge on this one. If there’s one thing Calipari and the fans in the Big Blue Nation cannot abide by, it’s laziness on the court. We’re all spoiled in that regard. Nerlens Noel’s UK career ended as he hustled down to stop a breakaway layup. And did anyone ever beat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist down the court? While most people were prepared for some half court defensive lapses, simply based on the team’s collective unfamiliarity with each other, I’m not sure anyone, least of which is Coach Cal, expected the Cats to be routinely beaten up the court.
Yet, despite shooting 20% from the three point line and 55% from the free throw line and turning the ball over ten more times than the Spartans (17 TOs to 7), the Wildcats had a legitimate chance to win. They showed a lot of heart fighting back when, for the first five minutes of the game, they looked dead in the water on offense and totally uncaring on defense. They were able to fight back and make the game tight in the final minute before eventually falling. there’s a lot to be said for the Cats never giving up.
Tonight’s first game ball goes to James Young. He finished with 19 points on 7-16 shooting from the floor. Yes, he shot 3-11 from three point range, but for most of the game, particularly in the first half, he looked like the only Kentucky player not swallowed up by the big moment. If he can become that consistent outside threat, that’s going to really open things up for the next game ball winner…
Julius Randle. On Twitter, a lot of the national media were chuckling at his first half struggles. But then a funny thing happened and he ended up posting his third straight double-double, finishing with 27 points and 13 rebounds. He also shot 9-15 from the line, so he should get a gold star for that. Simply put, the Spartans, even with their size and strength, had no answer for him. And if Tom Izzo and Sparty can’t out-tough or out-muscle a guy… you’ve been warned college basketball.
Last game ball goes to last year’s scapegoat, Alex Poythress. He seems to have really blossomed in his sixth man role so far this year. He’s making the plays that he didn’t make last year. He’s active on the boards and playing defense really well and he’s not forcing things on the offensive end. If he can somehow mold himself into the leader of this team, like Darius Miller in 2012, this team is going to keep improving. He finished his night against Michigan State with 7 points and 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. Once again, that’s a stat line that Cal will gladly take.
Don’t be discouraged Wildcat fans. These Cats are going to get better. The Harrison twins will make better decisions at the guard positions, which should help cut down on the turnover numbers. James Young is going to get even more comfortable shooting the ball, making doubling Randle a dicey proposition for any opposing coach. Randle… gulp… is going to get better. To quote Coach Calipari, “I like my team.” And, next time we see you, Sparty, you’d better be ready.