Kentucky Basketball: It's Time to Toughen Up

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First, don’t be fooled by the score. The University of Kentucky Wildcats were never really “in” the game. The Cats came out flat as the LSU Tigers raced out to a 16 point first half lead. On the shoulders of James Young, Kentucky was able to narrow the gap to 6 at halftime. LSU led 42-36 at the half and then scored the first two baskets of the second half and kept UK at arm’s length for the remainder of the game. A late flurry of shots from Aaron Harrison and some missed Tiger free throws led to the 5 point final margin.

Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, this team, at this moment, has a very low basketball IQ. During Aaron’s barrage at the end of the game, he hit a shot to trim the lead to 5 with around 13 seconds left and the Wildcats do NOT foul and allow LSU to dribble out the clock. That last play was just a microcosm of the total lack of awareness this team has shown throughout this season.  It’s not about “freshmen” mistakes, it’s about basic basketball understanding. It’s about the little things have have to be done to win ballgames, things that these Cats are not doing. And it’s not physical, physically, these Cats are gifted athletes, the bulk of this team’s current issues are all mental.

Slow starts continue to be an issue. For whatever reason, the current starting five start a step slower than every other opponent. And, for the most part, they’ve been able to fight back and win games or make them interesting at the end (Michigan State). But flat starts, like being down 16 to LSU, are exactly how you get beat in January, February and, especially, March. At some point, head coach John Calipari is going to have to shake up the starting lineup.  In the offseason, the Big Blue Nation was, more or less, promised that the bench was going to be Cal’s best friend this season. Cal was supposedly going to use playing time as a tool to motivate the dozens of McDonald’s All-Americans on this team. And to date, that hasn’t happened despite the same players making the same mistakes over and over again.

Right now, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress deserve to start. Based solely on their on-court performances, they are two Wildcats that do not seem overwhelmed by the physical nature of conference play. Johnson finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes while Poythress contributed 10 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. You’d have to think that if they were starting and getting “starter’s minutes” their impact on the game would be even greater.  When you add in the facts that Dakari and Alex were a combined 11 out of 16 from the field and 3 out of 4 from the foul line, they simply have to play more and, to combat the slow starts, both young men should be starting.

 Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

When Calipari’s teams are great, he has a point guard that he can trust to run his offense and to make sure everyone is where they need to be on defense and to keep everyone level headed. At Memphis, he had Derek Rose and Tyreke Evans, Rose leading the Tigers to the 2008 championship game. In Lexington, Cal has had John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague. All five guys led their teams to successful seasons and are now collecting checks in the NBA. Last year, Ryan Harrow just wasn’t the prototypical big and physical Calipari guard and we all saw how that team functioned. When the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron arrived on campus, the common belief was that UK was going to have the big guards necessary to execute the Dribble Drive offense. Physically, that’s what we got, but mentally, both Harrisons are still making basic mistakes that expose weaknesses in the Cats’ defense and stops the flow of the Wildcat offense.

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