Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kentucky's Youthful Struggles

Last night's last-second, overtime loss at the hands of Arkansas' Michael Qualls was a microcosm of both how good and how bad this young and talented Wildcat bunch can be. I turned on the game with just under twelve minutes left; at that point, Kentucky was shooting 63% from the floor, out-rebounding the Razorbacks by 8 boards, had only turned the ball over a manageable 11 times...and yet, they were down four points. By both talent and statistical measure, that should not have been the case. Kentucky has somewhere between five and eight players on its roster who will receive an NBA paycheck at some point in their playing careers.* Arkansas has Qualls (maybe). But despite that surfeit of talent, this year's version of Calipari's all-world freshmen-driven teams looks more like a slightly improved rendition of the 2012-13 group than either of the previous two.

*Definite NBA players in some capacity: Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young, Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress. Probable/possible NBA players: Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee.

The primary thing that I noticed in this game is that every time Arkansas either a) needed Kentucky to have a mental lapse or b) needed to out-tough the Wildcats, it happened, almost without fail. Sure, Kentucky wound up with a 50-32 rebounding edge, which is to be expected when you have Randle and Cauley-Stein suiting up against a smallish Razorback outfit. And the Wildcats showed off their terrific defensive potential in blocking eight shots (by six different players) and holding Arkansas to under 38% from the floor (under 29% from behind the arc). But their grasp of team defense is poor; there's a lot of ball-watching, late rotations, and casual stances by most players who don't happen to be on the ball at that particular moment. Arkansas was able to get 14 of its boards on the offensive glass (including the game-winner), only one less than the much bigger Wildcats. From my vantage point last night, the only Kentucky player who seemed to a) consistently play hard on defense and b) grasp what he was supposed to be doing most of the time was Poythress. Randle's defensive effort ranges from lazy to Kenneth Faried-level overreacting and picking up silly fouls. Cauley-Stein picked up five fouls in eighteen minutes, the last on a terrible attempt to draw a charge with ten seconds left when he would have been much better served to channel his inner Jeff Withey and jump straight up to block or alter Alandise Harris' attempt. The Harrisons and Young do a ton of ball-watching and standing around. There's really no reason for a team with at least three elite athletes (Cauley-Stein, Poythress, and Lee) and several other good ones to force a mere six turnovers from a team that plays fast. SIX! It defies belief.

Kentucky, of course, wound up losing this game thanks entirely to a careless play. How often are athletes told (in any sport) to "play to the whistle?" All the time, right? That's ingrained from the first time you play basketball or football or soccer or volleyball or any other sport that involves a referee with a whistle. Naturally, when Rashad Madden put up the potential game-winning three with about three seconds to go, everyone in a blue jersey turned to watch. Andrew Harrison was actually playing pretty good on-ball defense, and Poythress kinda sorta boxed out his man (near the shooter). But as for the other three (Aaron Harrison, Young, and Randle)? Ugh. At the time of the shot, Aaron Harrison was hanging out underneath the basket with his back to Qualls (his man) charging in from the perimeter. Young and Randle made zero effort to box out before coming in to join their teammate near the basket. The shot bounced high and away from the basket, as three-pointers typically do, and only Young belatedly noticed Qualls leaping for the rebound (with both hands!) and vainly attempted to get a hand up to block the putback try. And so Kentucky gave away a game it should have had several times in its pocket.

While I'm certainly not upset at seeing Kentucky blow a game while exhibiting all of its flaws that will likely doom the team sometime before the Final Four, it does bother me to see so much talent wasting all of that effort. The 2009-10 team with John Wall, Boogie Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe had some issues on that front (mostly Cousins), but they worked well as a unit. So did the 2011-12 group, which was helped tremendously by its two best players (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) being incredibly unselfish. Those teams also each had something that this year's doesn't; an upperclassman in a key role (Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller, respectively). That may indeed be the difference between a great Kentucky team and a merely good one. As a basketball fan in general, I hope that this team learns how to play harder and play together, because in those moments when they (and Coach Calipari) are all on the same page, it's pretty fun to watch.