Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kentucky 63 - 51 Texas (No. 2,148)

This game had a big-time feel from the beginning -- on the radio, you could tell that Tom Leach was much more nervous than he had been for the last few games.  On TV, you could see that some of the UK fans had these T-shirts celebrating Coach Cal's remark that the UK platoons were like tanks that just keep coming at you.  One of the shirts was blue with white trim, and it had a picture of a blue tank with a UK flag and the word "BLUE!"  The other was white with blue trim, and it showed a white tank with a UK flag and the word "WHITE!"  From what I could tell, the fans were supposed to switch T-shirts as the different platoons came in and out of the game -- but as it turned out, this plan broke down because Texas did not come to Rupp Arena to be a background for anyone else's story.  They were wearing their own special gear -- remarkably hideous dark gray unis with burnt orange trim -- and they were determined to make their own story.

In many ways, Texas did exactly what you need to do to beat the Cats.  Under John Calipari, the Cats have generally had their biggest problems with tough, physical teams who shut down the Cats' offense, take away their running game, and force them into a low-scoring, grinding sort of game.  Remember West Virginia?  Remember UConn?  Remember all those SEC road games against teams like Alabama and Georgia?  That's the way to give UK trouble, and that's exactly what Texas did.  Look at these facts:

1.  UT out-rebounded UK 42-31.
2.  UT got to the line 29 times -- and even UK can't block a free throw.
3.  The Cats were only 1-12 from beyond the arc, making their only three-pointer very late in the game.  (I had long since quit listening to Tom Leach by then, but I know how worried he gets when it looks like UK's three-point shooting streak is in danger, and he must have sounded very concerned Friday night as one three-pointer after another clanged off the rim.
4.  Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ulis, and Devin Booker combined to go 3-15 from two-point range (and 4-27 from the field).  One piece of advice for UK's guards -- you are great players, but none of you can really  make the running jump shots you kept trying against UT.

So UT had done the things that you have to do against UK -- beat them on the boards, get to the line, and avoid getting burned by their guards.  Cut off from both its running game and its outside game, the Wildcats were forced into the type of physical battle that they lost against UConn last year.

But we tend to forget that Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't there against UConn.  There is something about WCS that causes UK fans to overlook him.  This is not always bad -- WCS has had a lot of games where he appeared to be asleep on the court, but UK fans have never criticized him as harshly as they did, say, Terrence Jones (who didn't actually have as many off nights as Cauley-Stein).  On the other hand, we've never thought of Cauley-Stein as the guy who could carry the Cats either.  But that's what he did Friday night.  Texas brought a big, strong team to Rupp Arena, and the Cats had their array of famous freshmen and sophomores -- but when it was all over, Cauley-Stein was the biggest and best player on the floor.  Look at these numbers:  6-11 from the floor, 9-12 from the line, 21 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 5 steals.  Perhaps most importantly of all -- 33 minutes played.  Calipari, recognizing that Cauley-Stein was the difference-maker, broke away from the usual platoon system -- keeping Marcus Lee on the bench for most of the game (Lee played only 4 minutes) and giving that time to Cauley-Stein.

After a desultory first half (the score was tied at 26 at halftime), the Cats started the second half with the following line-up:  Ulis, Booker, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, and Cauley-Stein.  Here's what they did:

19:24:  Jumper by Dakari Johnson (UK up 28-26) (assist by Ulis)
19:14:  Rebound by Cauley-Stein
18:57:  Two FT by Cauley-Stein (UK up 30-26)
18:39:  Steal by Cauley-Stein
18:19:  Jumper by Lyles (UK up 32-26) (assist by Ulis)

And then, after a few scoreless possessions:

17:05:  Rebound by Ulis
16:59:  Dunk by Lyles (UK up 34-26) (assist by Johnson)
16:46:  Turnover by Texas
16:37:  Layup by Johnson (UK 36-26) (assist by Ulis)
16:24:  Steal by Cauley-Stein

It was very pleasant for awhile after that -- a tip-in by Cauley-Stein with 11:20 to go put the Cats up 44-28, and I thought we might be on our way to another blow-out.  But Texas is made of sterner stuff, and they fought back.  With 1:44 to go, UK led by only 56-51.  Soon afterward, Calipari called a 30-secone time out and went with the following line-up:  Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Johnson, Karl-Anthony Town, and Cauley-Stein.  Here's what happened then:

1:18:  Cauley-Stein is fouled and makes one FT (UK up 57-51)
1:11:  Texas misses a three-pointer
0:44:  Dunk by Cauley-Stein (UK up 59-51) (assist by Andrew Harrison)
0:29:  Texas turnover -- Johnson misses two FT's
0:16:  Cauley-Stein gets a defensive rebound
0:13:  Cauley-Stein makes two FT's (UK up 61-51)

So both at the beginning of the second half and down the stretch, Cauley-Stein was the difference in the game.  If he plays like this, and UK can overcome the type of offensive struggles they experienced from their guards, the Cats will be extremely tough to beat.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to two other players who I am coming to like more and more.  I thought Dakari Johnson played a huge role in UK's late run last year, and he was excellent in this game -- 11 points and 6 points in only 19 minutes.  (He was 3-9 from the line, and he will be even more valuable if he can improve his free-throw shooting).  Tyler Ulis is the type of player that I have always wanted UK to have -- a 5-9 point guard who causes trouble all over the court.  For years, I've watched guys like Ulis play for schools like LSU and South Carolina, where they caused the Cats all sorts of trouble.  Now we have our own version, and his passing and speed were critical to UK's run that broke open the game at the beginning of the second half.

So far, so good.  Let's hope the Cats can keep it going.

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