Monday, February 3, 2014

Missouri 79 - 84 Kentucky (No. 2,127)

For years -- decades, it seems -- the SEC has been full of slow, bruising teams that like to bang things around and slow up the game.  And that meant that for Kentucky fans, the SEC regular season was just long slog, with game after game in the 60's.  And the SEC still has a lot of teams that will slop it up -- as you know if you've seen any of Alabama's games.  But Ole Miss plays at a pretty decent clip these days, as does LSU, Arkansas, and Missouri.  Playing at a faster pace doesn't necessarily make the game any easier, but it certainly is more fun to watch.

So UK's first trip to Columbia, Missouri turned into an old-fashioned barn-burner.  Here was the score by quarters:

1st:  Kentucky 21, Missouri 19
2d:  Kentucky 21, Missouri 13 (UK led 42-32 at the half)
3d:  Missouri 22, Kentucky 19 (UK led 61-54 with 10 minutes to go)
4th:  Missouri 25, Kentucky 23 (UK won 84-79)

But this breakdown doesn't do justice to the drama of what actually happened.  What actually happened was that UK played a wonderful basketball game for the first 25 minutes, and led 59-43 with 14:32 left in the game.  Pomeroy had picked UK to win 75-73, and I was thinking that a 15-20 point win on the road against a Missouri team that was 43-2 at home under its current coach would move UK up quite a bit in the rankings.

But Pomeroy's analysis proved to be pretty good, because Mizzou scored 36 points in the last 14 minutes and 32 seconds -- almost all off it by only two players.  Missouri's guards -- Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson -- absolutely shredded the UK defense.  In the second half, they combined to go 14-21 from the field and 6-9 from the free throw line for a total of 36 points.  For the game, Brown had 33 points and Clarkson had 28.  They did everything -- step-back three-pointers, driving slam dunks, run-outs after missed shots, run-outs after made baskets.  It was like watching a highlight reel.

One reason that UK couldn't do much to stop them is that Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein combined to play only 18 minutes. In those 18 minutes, Johnson and WCS scored two points and were whistled for eight fouls.  That left the Cats without a strong interior presence, and allowed Brown and Clarkson to spread the UK defense and attack the goal at will.  A lot of UK fans are in despair over WCS, who hasn't played very well since the Vanderbilt game.  But I think he's just having a hard time adjusting to the physical play in the SEC and the fact that UK's guards aren't doing a great job at keeping players away from the basket.  That has left WCS vulnerable to a lot of foul trouble -- this was the third time in the last six games where he was whistled for at least four fouls.

So you have to imagine Missouri on this manic run down the stretch, with the crowd going wild and the Tiger guards scoring on play after play.  With 7:07 left, the Tigers finished off a 20-7 run with a thunderous dunk by Jabari Brown and the Cats' lead was only 66-63. But then UK stopped the bleeding, and pulled out to a 72-65 lead with 5 minutes left.  For the next 3 1/2 minutes, UK matched the Tigers point for point, until the Cats led by 78-71 with only 1:46 left after a glorious play that left Alex Poythress wide open for a driving dunk down the lane.

At this point, even I was feeling optimistic, but Missouri responded by calling time-out -- and then having Brown take another long three-pointer.  By this point, he was playing like Kobe Bryant on a good day in his prime, so I was not surprised to see that he made the shot -- or that the officials called another foul.  The four-point play made the score 78-75 with 1:29 left.  Given that UK was essentially defenseless, this meant that the Cats pretty much had to score on all their remaining possessions.

And that's what they did.  With 57 seconds left, Julius Randle (who had 18 points and 9 rebounds) hit a jumper to put the Cats up 80-75.  Of course, it only took five seconds for Clarkson to make a layup that left UK with an 80-77 lead.

So now the Cats were holding the ball, and the huge crowd in Columbia was going nuts, and the Tigers were definitely trying to get a chance to tie the game.  With about five seconds left on the shot clock, Aaron Harrison had the ball in the corner.  He beat his man, drove the baseline, attracted lots of defenders, and then MADE A PERFECT REVERSE LAYUP -- the only shot he could take where he wouldn't be fouled or have his shot blocked.  It was a spectacular, instinctive, fearless move -- one of the best plays I've ever seen by a UK player under those circumstances, and it gave UK a crucial five-point lead with 19 seconds to go.  Four seconds later, Clarkson finally missed a jump shot, Poythress got the rebound, and the Cats had a huge, huge win.

Aaron Harrison's last bucket capped off a wonderful game for the twins, who combined to go 10-18 from the field and score 35 enormous points.  Given that James Young chipped in 20 points on 8-14 shooting (Young was spectacular in this game), the four main UK freshmen -- Randle, Harrison, Harrison, and Young -- scored a total of 73 points on the road in what was arguably UK's biggest game of the year.  That's why the experts were so excited about this freshman class.

One is tempted to say that UK has "figured it out" and that all is peaches and cream from here on.  But it's important to recall that from a statistical perspective, UK is still basically the same team they've been since the beginning of the year.  They are amazingly good on offense for a freshman-dominated team -- they are 7th in the country in offensive efficiency (the John Wall team was 27th in the country in the same category).  But they lack a strong defensive presence on the inside like Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis, or DeMarcus Cousins, and they don't have a lock-down defender like DeAndre Liggins.  After giving up 166 points in their last two games, they are now 52d in the country in defensive efficiency -- behind schools like Texas A & M and Vandy.

I know that everyone pays a lot of attention to offense, but it's not realistic to expect UK to get that much better in that regard -- at least not this season.  They average 119.3 points per 100 possessions, only slightly behind the 2012 National Champions (who averaged 121.3).  On the other hand, UK's defense has lots of room to improve, but it's not getting much better -- in their last three road games the Cats have given up 87 points to Arkansas (including the OT period), 87 points to LSU, and 79 points to Missouri.  That's not a good trend.

But they did win a game I didn't expect them to get, and they are still very much in contention for lots of hardware.  Next up:  Ole Miss.


  1. Yes, yes, yes. Everything you said.

    Especially agree about the Harrison reverse layup, which was such a good individual play that it was hard to imagine I had just actually seen it (i.e., I don't be-LIEVE ... what I just SAW!).

    With the 2012 team, I kept thinking to myself when is that team going to start acting like a bunch of freshmen and get scared and start doing a bunch of unwise things at the same time (try to do nothing, try to do too much, fight somebody, fight each other, whatever). It never seemed to happen during the regular season, and then I got terrified it was going to happen in the first or second round of the NCAA tournament against a cagey senior-dominated champion of a Tier II conference. And I don't know; maybe that did sort of start to happen against Princeton in the first round? But, whatever, that team was the best college-basketball team certainly that I've ever watched with any consistency, Anthony Davis was definitely one of the half-dozen best individual college-basketball players I've ever seen, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was apparently like the all-time blood-and-guts leader and that team did have one excellent senior in Darius Miller and a handful of other contributing veterans.

    This team has some really great individual talents (but no obviously legendary talent and presence like Anthony Davis), and it doesn't seem to have the clear leader or nearly the veteran influence (though, you know, Alex Poythress sure appears to be starting to do a heck of a job here given that he's only a freaking sophomore and not obviously the personality type that would seem to fit that mold). This team really could lose any time out against any team, but, of course, it's starting to look like they could win any time out against most any team. And there might yet be a classic-Calipari February surprise from among this roster--the kid who just seems to suddenly put on big-boy pants and narrow the gaps between his flashes of peak performance (a la Josh Harrellson, Deandre Liggins and Miller). No telling what's going to happen with this team.

  2. I think they're trying hard, and that counts for a lot with me.

  3. I've been reminded offline by Go Heath that it was the memorable 2011 team--not the legendary 2012 team--that struggled with Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Thank you for the correction.