Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Auburn 53 - 75 Kentucky (No. 2,102)

After the Tennessee game, one of the fans on the Kentucky message board said that he interpreted Coach Cal's post-game comments as signalling that he had finally figured out how this team should work.  At the time, I didn't take that thought too seriously, but we could see some real progress in this game.

The truth is that this year's team has a complicated mix of strengths and weaknesses.  At times, they have looked spectacular, but at other times, they have looked awful.  Here is a brief rundown of what they've got:

Nerlens Noel -- very athletic, great shot-blocking center, can be pushed around inside, limited on offense.

Willie Cauley-Stein -- similar to Noel, but weaker in every facet of the game

Alex Poythress -- has basically the same game as Terrence Jones, but with almost none of Jones's energy; tends to disappear for long stretches of time

Kyle Wiltjer -- decent shooter for his size; good passer, but major liability on defense

Archie Goodwin -- good at getting to the rim, but often has problems trying to drive through traffic; not a great outside shooting threat; can lose energy when things aren't going well for him

Julius Mays -- meant to be a three-point shooting threat, but has a worrying tendency to go cold from the outside; otherwise just an average kid who tries hard

Ryan Harrow -- shows many of the technical skills of a point guard, but without the dominating personality of great point guards; limited shooting ability; OK defensively

Jerrod Polson -- former walk-on -- tries hard and knows what to do, but very limited athletically

Jon Hood -- somewhat better athletically than Polson, but not much; no offensive threat because he won't shoot

For weeks now, I (as well as most of the college basketball world) haven't been able to see how Calipari could get much out of this Island of Misfit Toys.  It seemed to me that as long as you played a sagging defense and prevented Poythress and Goodwin from getting any running room, UK isn't that hard to defend.  And UK's defense is undermined by a lack of physical strength on the inside, which leads to a lot of offensive rebounds for the other team.

Ten minutes into the Auburn game, UK still looked like a big mess.  Wiltjer and Mays were shooting blanks from the inside, so the offense was doing poorly.  WCS was out with an injury, so the team was even thinner than usual on the inside.  If Auburn could have hit some shots, they could have put the Cats into a big hole.  But for once this year, the Big Blue was lucky.  Auburn was ice cold (and stayed that way -- the Tigers went 0-15 from three-point range for the game).  After ten minutes, the score was only 6-6.

But now in the big movie, this would have been the scene where the kids finally quit trying to do things their way and started listening to the coach.  Instead of firing away from the outside, UK started running its offense through Wiltjer -- the only shooting threat they have.  Wiltjer proved he could made a 15-footer inside the zone, and on subsequent possessions, he burned the collapsing Auburn defenders with pretty passes that Poythress and Goodwin turned into dunks.  When Auburn had the ball, they would drive past Wiltjer -- only to run into a hustling Noel and a quick blocked shot.

UK was up 30-25 at halftime, and in the second half they just kept rolling.  When Wiltjer was out, Poythress (the only other forward who can shoot) played his role -- flashing into the middle of the zone and making nice passes as well.  Meanwhile, Wiltjer (3-6 from behind the arc) and Mays (2-4 from three-point range) finally started hitting some long-range shots.  The lead grew to 10 points, then 12 -- then finally Auburn collapsed, giving up a bunch of easy run-outs to Harrow, Poythress, and Goodwin.  In the 20 minutes of game time from the 10-minute mark of the first half to the 10-minute mark of the second half, the Cats outscored Auburn 52-37 -- which translates into some very efficient offense, especially on the road.

Everybody ended up happy for UK.  Wiltjer led all scorers with 17 points, but Goodwin had 12, Poythress had 12, Harrow had 12, and Noel had 10.  The Cats finally rebounded well, out-rebounding Auburn by 43-30.  In the end, the Cats had a 22-point road win, even though they went only 5-15 from three-point range and only 10-16 from the free throw line.

But we still have a long way to go.  The Cats cannot count on the other team missing as many open shots as Auburn did.  And next up is Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a place that is traditionally very difficult for the Cats.  The last time we went there, in 2011, we lost despite having a team that subsequently went to the Final Four.  On the other hand, if we could win this game, that would be a strong sign that the team is starting to come together.  On the whole, this is a huge, huge game.