On Tuesday night, the University of Kentucky Wildcats defeated the UT – Arlington Mavericks 105 – 76 at Rupp Arena. And the key, once again, for these young Wildcat teams under head coach Calipari is how they grow during these early season games. It’s no surprise that the Cats still have a lot of areas of improvement. Most members of the Big Blue Nation had to expect some growing pains and that this 2013-14 edition of the Wildcats would win a few games on talent alone, with the game against the Mavericks being no exception.
Going forward, there are some areas that the Cats are going to need to continue to work on. First, the Cats are going to need some steadier play from the point guard position. Often lost in the Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones 2012 title team was the play of Marquis Teague. That team got by on their overwhelming talent early, but didn’t truly become elite until Teague “got it.” After the loss to Indiana, when the light went on for Marquis, the Cats became the most offensively and defensively efficient team in the country. So, yes, a freshman point guard can do it. And Andrew Harrison can as well. It’s just about slowing down a bit and learning when to make the right pass at the right time.
Defense. The hardest thing to teach young players is defense. At this point, to be kind, the Wildcat’s team defense is a work in progress. The rotations from the weakside aren’t there. And the perimeter players have to stop allowing opposing guards to get into the lane at will. And the big guys need to shut down the lane and force the driver to pick up his dribble and pass the ball back out. The biggest issue this team needs to overcome is defensive intensity. These guys need to decide to get serious on the defense end and it’s going to start with someone, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle or even Alex Poythress to step up and be this team’s vocal leader and demand better effort. What Would Michael Kidd-Gilchrist do?
Overall, the game against UT-Arlington had the feel of a first round NCAA game: The Wildcats came out lethargic against an overmatched opponent, the opponent kept it close for the first half and then the Cats turned it on in the second half. As long as the guys keep improving from game to game, this team will be fine.
James Young. Young is the outside shooter that the Cats have missed since Doron Lamb left campus. While Lamb was a better consistent outside shooter, the streaky Young is just enough of a threat from the perimeter to make double teaming Randle on the inside a lose/lose situation for opponents. Young finished with 26 points on 8 out of 14 shooting including 5 out of 10 from three point range. By adding 3 assists, 2 steals and two rebounds, Young is continuing to show flashes of just how special he can be.
Julius Randle. Water is wet. The sky is blue. Death. Taxes. Julius Randle got another double double with 22 points and 10 rebounds. And as he continued from the last outing against Robert Morris, Randle is showing patience beyond his years and is not forcing the issue. So far, I’ve been really please with the way he passes out of the always coming double team and makes the right basketball play for the team. As his 4 assists show, he’s not unwilling to pass the ball and as his 2 turnovers show, he’s getting better at protecting the ball and making better passes.
Andrew Harrison. Yes, the point guard position is a work in progress and the Big Blue Nation is waiting on Andrew to make the jump. But he has quietly followed up a horrendous game against Michigan State with two strong, offensively at least, performances. He’s the prototypical Calipari point guard. He’s big and he’s strong and physical and is finishing through contact. Once he finally learns how to run the team and put everyone in the right positions, Andrew is going to be even better. So when your learning on the job point guard can score 15 points, add 6 assists (with only 2 turnovers), shoot 7 out of 8 from the FT line and go 2 for 2 from three point range, it’s definitely not a bad thing.
The Wildcats are getting better. Calipari is still tinkering with rotations and playing time and finding out who is go to guys are. Right now, they’re just scratching the surface of how talented they will be. The best part of Cal’s UK teams are the way you can see the players grow, both individually and collectively, from game to game. And tonight, the Cats showed some improvement, but still remain a work in progress.