Posted: 3:53 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013
By Ken Howlett
Like most young teams, the 2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcats are struggling with maintaining consistency.
If one were inclined, one could click on the Archives section on the front page of A Sea of Blue and go back to the 2010-2011 basketball season, and re-read one of several articles I wrote on the in-game inconsistency of that eventual, Final Four team. Why? Because the series of posts I wrote during the 2011 season, lamenting that team's troubling start to the year, mirrors to an extraordinary degree what we are witnessing in the 2013-2014 version of the 'Cats.
Of the 2011 team's eight regular season losses, at least half were because of inconsistent execution, effort, and focus, or some combination of the three. Whether a setback was due to a defensive melt-down in the final few minutes, missed free throws, or incompetently executed end-game plays, that Kentucky team simply could not get out of its own way. This year; same story, different actors.
Unbeknownst to most Wildcat basketball fans, the UK men's team played two games Friday night against the Baylor Bears. In one of the games, the 'Cats executed their half-court sets with precision, utilizing crisp ball movement and reversal, and executed their half-court defense with great switching and weak side help.
The other, less appetizing game the Wildcats played Friday night saw the squad revert. Revert to high school. Revert to halfhearted rebounding. Revert to unfocused, immature basketball. And this against a top-20 team unimpressed with the "Kentucky" emblazoned across the chests of the 'Cats.
From the 15:38 mark of the first half (when UK trailed 16-7), until the 13:08 mark of the second stanza (when UK was up 50-41), Kentucky played, without question, its best basketball of the season. The Wildcats outscored Baylor 43-25 during that 21:46 stretch of the game, connecting on 16-of-33 shots (48.5 percent), with 14 assists and only three turnovers.
Defensively, the 'Cats held the Bears to 10-of-27 field goal accuracy (37.0 percent), and forced 10 turnovers during those nearly 22 minutes of action.
After a slow start to the game (perhaps because UK Hoops played four overtimes in the evening's first game), UK began to turn the tide of the contest in the middle of the first half. That's when the team began clicking, particularly on the offensive end, something that carried over into the second half.
Then, with the same authority Julius Randle rattled the backboard with a thunderous dunk at the 13:08 mark, putting UK up 50-41, the wheels came off the Wildcat wagon.
On UK's next possession, Baylor head coach Scott Drew went to a man-to-man look (and away from the 2-3 zone he normally employs), but for only the one possession. And when Drew went back to the zone, Kentucky's memory of how to attack the 2-3 was a blank slate. Instead of using the great ball movement and penetration that secured UK the lead, the squad tumbled, stumbled, and bumbled its way to a five-point loss.
"What this team does is, they get it going and they get it right, and then they get arrogant and they step back," UK head coach John Calipari said about the 'Cats embracing success a little too tightly.
Instead of Calipari's team pressing the boot on Baylor's neck a little harder, expanding its nine-point lead, the Wildcats embraced success, refusing to rebound and defend the paint. Making matters worse; UK was abused by the high pick-and-roll, not because Baylor was just that talented, but because players reacted slowly and without help, leaving the Bears to perform a rather impressive dunk fest, garnering confidence with every slam.
During the 19:14 of the game UK had its collective teeth kicked in (the first 4:22 of the game combined with the final 13:08 of the contest), Baylor made 16-of-28 shots from the floor ( 57.1 percent) and snagged 11 offensive rebounds (on its way to 18 offensive boards), outscoring UK by a healthy 42-19 margin.
"When the other team gets that many offensive rebounds ... Why? Because they're down and ready to go and anxious to go get the ball, and (we're) like, I hope someone grabs this (the rebound). That's all stuff we're just learning," Calipari said.
Hopefully, giving up 38 points in the paint to a similarly sized Baylor front court, compared to 26 for the Wildcats, is an available and valuable lesson Cal can teach his 'Cats, because the Baylor big men -- led by Rico Gathers, won snagged 13 rebounds in 22 minutes of play -- revealed a weakness among UK's tall timber in guarding the rim.
"We're not a great defensive team," Calipari said about UK's defensive lapses against Baylor. "When you become a great defensive team, and great rebounding team, you take pride in it, and we're not taking great pride.
"When you take great pride ... like when we played Providence, Aaron (Harrison) took great pride and he guarded that kid (Bryce Cotton) and all the sudden the game changed. When you take great pride in your defense and your rebounding you have confidence," Calipari said about the mindset he's trying to instill in his young team. "They (the opponent) can make a couple of crazy shots and we're fine. We haven't built that yet; we're just trying to get them to understand. That's the only way you build it (pride in defense). They've never needed that before, because (they say) I'm just gonna do my thing and I'm fine. Now, you have to change. ... These are all habits they have to change."
For all his pronouncements regarding this UK team, what Calipari says boils down to one thing: being consistent. Regardless of time and score, the 'Cats must learn to play with great effort and execution. This squad's goal should be to bury the opposition under a pile of points, back-breaking blocks, and defensive pressure. Every rebound is mine!, should be the team's mantra. When leaving the playing floor, every opponent should rue the day they decided to even pick up a basketball, cursing their athletic director for putting Kentucky on the schedule.
This team, though, is not there yet. But considering the 'Cats are a fetus in terms of experience, the ceiling is limitless. For we've seen tantalizing flashes of greatness out of nearly every player on the roster at some point during UK's nine-game old season, and remember, it was mid-February before the 2011 Wildcats "got it" and tore off on a Final Four run most Kentucky fans will never forget.
"Look, the way we do it is really hard, the way they've (his players) always played is really easy. Now, which way do you want to do it? The real hard way, or the easy way?"
That's the question each Wildcat has to answer, and I suspect the answers will be a determinant in how happy Kentucky fans are in April.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!