Feb 1, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) dribbles past Missouri Tigers forward Johnathan Williams, III (3) during the first half at Mizzou Arena. The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Missouri Tigers 84-79. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Basketball: We Can Build On This

Feb 1, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison (5) shoots over the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Mizzou Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, the University of Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Tigers of the University of Missouri 84-79 in Kentucky’s first trip to Columbia, Mo. After the Cats dreadful performance on the road against LSU on Tuesday night, the Big Blue Nation approached the game vs. the Tigers with lots of questions, hoping the Cats would provide some answers. The game was labeled as “must win” and an indicator with how the rest of the of the season would go. And on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats provided some answers.

I opined after the LSU debacle that perhaps it was time for either Dakari Johnson on Alex Poythress to start, based on their recent play. Johnson got the start against Mizzou, but was quickly sent to the bench after two quick fouls. Former starter Willie Cauley-Stein, himself mired in a dreadful slump, replaced Johnson and picked up three first half fouls.  Neither big man played spectacularly, combining for 2 points, 1 rebound and 8 fouls in 18 minutes of play. And still, the Cats won.

The Wildcats scored from inside and out vs. the Tigers, with Aaron Harrison’s 21 points leading the way. James Young finished with 20 and Julius Randle had 18. With Andrew Harrison adding 14 points of his own, in addition to 4 assists and 1 turnover), this is the Wildcat offense that most people expected to see earlier this season.  When the Cats are this diverse scoring the ball and the Harrisons and Young are attacking the rim, they’re very tough to beat, even when, as Missouri did, teams play a wide variety of exotic zone defenses. Despite the strange defenses the Tigers employed, the Cats won.

Feb 1, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Jarrod Polson (3) looses control of the ball during the second half at Mizzou Arena. The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Missouri Tigers 84-79. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson and Cauley-Stein weren’t the only Cats saddled with foul trouble as Poythress and Andrew Harrsion also finished with four fouls apiece. The foul trouble, particularly amongst the frontline players, forced head coach John Calipari to employ a 2-3 zone. While the Cats haven’t employed the zone defense much during Calipari’s tenure, during the first half against Mizzou, it was very effective as the Cats led 42-32 at the half. Even with the foul trouble and getting minimal impact from the 5 position, the Cats won.

On the road, the Cats have been less than stellar this season, leaving many to wonder (myself included) how mentally tough these highly regarding recruits were.  With Missouri down by 10 at the half, the Cats had to be prepared for the homestanding Tigers to come out fighting in the second half. And the Tigers did. And the Cats responded, stretching the lead to 16 points with roughly 14 minutes left in the game. And then, Missouri, particularly the guard combo of Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28 points) came storming back, narrowing the margin to as close to 2 points. The Cats defense, which has been susceptible to quick guards, was once again porous during the Mizzou run, but they buckled down on offense and hit their free throws to close out the game. The Cats defense was less than stellar, the home team made a push and yet, the Cats won.

There are plenty of things to nitpick about the Wildcats’ performance against Missouri. The transition defense and the half court defense has got to get better.  If Willie Cauley-Stein isn’t going to regain his early-season rim protecting form, the perimeter guys have got to at least slow down their man. And the bigs (Randle, Johnson, Poythress and Lee) are going to have to rotate better on drives and become the defense presence to at least make the opposition hesitate when driving. The free throw shooting (16 out of 24, 66.7%) is still a concern, but when Randle is 4 out of 5, Andrew Harrison is 4 out of 6 and brother Aaron is a perfect 8 for 8 from the stripe the Cats can close out tough road games.

 Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the Wildcats showed the fight that many didn’t know they had. They fought for loose balls. They helped each other up off the floor. And, most importantly, they didn’t get rattled. When Mizzou made their second half run, the Cats, collectively, didn’t blink. Defensive lapses didn’t spill over to poor offensive possessions. They solved the Missouri zone. On Tuesday, Big Blue Nation wondered if this team would ever get it. Now, we can see proof of life. The Cats have a month to build themselves into a national championship contender and with a win on the road at Missouri, they’ve laid the foundation to be a special team come March.

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