Kentucky Basketball: 10 Ways the Wildcats Must Grow Up Fast
The Kentucky Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country, ranked second in almost every major poll and have almost an entire starting lineup full of NBA draft picks.
But Kentucky still has a lot of growing up to do. Three of their starters are freshmen and two are sophomores. Despite their 15-1 record, the Wildcats are much more flawed than it might seem.
Because of the team’s incredible talent, many deficiencies are covered up. Based on the way both teams played, Kentucky should have lost to the Indiana Hoosiers by 15 points. Thanks to their sheer skills, they were up by two points with mere seconds remaining.
Some players are not playing as consistently as they should be. Others still have not yet mastered the offense. Sometimes, the entire team seems as if they are sleepwalking through games.
There are 10 glaring areas in which the Wildcats need to improve quickly or else they will begin losing games. Talent can only carry a team so far.
Starting Games Fast
The Kentucky Wildcats have a disturbing habit of beginning games with a lack of effort.
Most recently, against the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans, Kentucky was down 30-27 at halftime and did not pull away until midway through the second half.
Beginning games with so little intensity has been an ongoing problem for the Wildcats. In games against Old Dominion, Indiana, Marist and South Carolina, Kentucky has come out flat.
With conference play having recently begun, the Wildcats cannot continue this lackadaisical play.
The teams in the Southeastern Conference are much better than mid-major and Division II schools. If Kentucky lets SEC teams hang around, they will gain confidence and have enough ability to follow through and beat the Cats.
Kentucky must start every game with energy, hustle and excitement (the entire team, not just Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Energizer Bunny). Otherwise, there will be quite a few more losses on the Wildcats’ resume before March.
Marquis Teague has proved that he can play. He is a great defender, can drive past his man with ease and, in many games, has been very capable of being the level-headed leader his team needs.
However, Teague needs to learn how to play that way consistently. Too many turnovers, too few assists and poor shot selection have turned Teague into a thorn in the backside of Kentucky fans.
Teauge simply needs to slow down and let the game come to him. His main job is to facilitate his teammates. When he makes good passes and sets up the offense, his glory will come.
Teague’s uneven play is mostly caused by his youth. He is just a few months removed from high school, trying to lead the No. 2 team in the nation and a roster full of future NBA draft picks.
Quite a daunting task. But Teague has shown that he is willing to learn. He has improved steadily already this season. His last outing against the South Carolina Gamecocks was one of his best performances so far.
Teague just needs to keep listening to his coach and practicing hard. He has all the talent necessary and will undoubtedly become an elite point guard. The Wildcats just hope that transformation happens sooner rather than later.
Two players on the Kentucky Wildcats roster sometimes lack the competitive edge that the rest of the team has. Terrence Jones and Darius Miller, you know who you are.
Miller is supposed to be Kentucky’s senior leader. Far too often, though, he shrinks back from the spotlight.
When Miller plays aggressively and looks for his shot, he is one of the best players on the team if not in the nation. Oftentimes, however, Miller is content to simply watch his teammates and not involve himself in the game.
Jones’ struggles have been well chronicled. After barely even registering on the stat sheet in the Wildcats’ lone loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, Jones had a string of bad games.
He dislocated a finger in Kentucky’s game against Chattanooga, but even Coach Calipari does not believe Jones’ injury is completely to blame for his ineffective play.
Jones had a good game in the team’s last outing, and hopefully, he will continue to improve. His main problem, though, is that his bad games often come out of nowhere, so who knows how long his resurgence will last?
Both Miller and Jones are vital parts of the Wildcats’ success. With an already paper-thin bench, Kentucky cannot afford to have two of its best players underperforming.
The Kentucky Wildcats are ranked first in the nation in defensive shooting percentage. They are allowing opponents to shoot just 35 percent overall and a mere 36.9 percent on two-point field goals.
While these statistics might make Kentucky seem like a defensive powerhouse, there is one area in which the Wildcats struggle mightily—three-point field goal defense.
Kentucky is ranked 62nd in the country, allowing opponents to shoot over 30 percent from three. However, those numbers do not tell the full story.
Against arguably the two best opponents the Wildcats have faced—the North Carolina Tar Heels and Indiana Hoosiers—Kentucky allowed 61 percent and 60 percent three-point shooting respectively.
As much of the team is still adapting to John Calipari’s defensive style, it is clear that they are facing some learning curves.
Most of the young Cats’ problems with giving up deep shots has to do with ball screens and defensive rotation.
The team is still learning how to help on screens without leaving a player wide open. Players are sometimes too slow finding their man on fast breaks and other times do not understand when to rotate defensively.
The solution to Kentucky’s defensive problems will be found through practice. They will have to be taught how to respond to difficult situations.
Calipari preaches defense and is aware of his team’s propensity to give up threes. The Cats will undoubtedly be focusing on improving in practice.
The Kentucky Wildcats can be a great passing team. They have four very talented guards and big men who can finish around the basket.
However, Kentucky is averaging just 14 assists per game. Point guard Marquis Teague is averaging 4.5 assists per game, a little low for someone with the ball in his hands so often.
After Teague, no player on Kentucky’s roster is averaging more than 2.6 dimes. Darius Miller, a reserve, has the next highest total. Doron Lamb, who splits time at the point with Teague is averaging just two assists.
When the Wildcats run the break, it is a thing of beauty. Their passing is pinpoint, and they run the floor so well that there are at least three players ready to receive an alley-oop.
It is when the team gets in a half-court offense that the passing stalls. Kentucky clearly has not perfected kicking the ball out while running the dribble drive.
The team must learn to make quick cuts and strong passes in order to find open teammates and get easy baskets.
The Kentucky Wildcats’ lone loss of the season, against the Indiana Hoosiers, came down to free throws. Kentucky lost by one point on a last second three-pointer.
Anthony Davis missed the front end of a one-and-one with less than a minute remaining. Then, Doron Lamb missed the first of his two shots. For the game, Kentucky shot just 59 percent from the free throw line.
As the Wildcats begin to face tougher opponents night in and night out, a few free throws could decide many more games.
Kentucky’s individual shooting percentages are not awful, but at the end of games, very few players on the Wildcats roster look confident enough to step to the line.
As with many of Kentucky’s problems, the team simply needs to practice. The more shots the players take, the better.
One they start hitting more shots in practice, the team will become more confident and able to knock down key free throws to win games.
Two of the Kentucky Wildcats’ leading scorers are players who spend a fair amount of time in the post—Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones.
The problem for both of these players is that they don’t have any reliable moves for when they get the ball in the paint.
Thanks to a ridiculous growth spurt, Davis has been playing center for just a few years. He has not had the time and coaching that many other college centers have had.
Furthermore, Davis is a twig. He needs to gain weight fast if he has any hope of backing down strong SEC centers.
Jones has the quickness and strength to be effective down low. However, he has not learned how to harness his skills.
When Jones gets the ball on the post, he does not know what to do with it. If he cannot blow by his man, he has no alternatives.
Davis is a great rebounder, but most of his points come from alley-oops or put backs. Jones spends most of his time on the perimeter. For Kentucky’s offense to be fully successful, the team needs a post presence.
Dribble Drive Against Non-Traditional Defenses
Against a normal man-to-man defense, the Kentucky Wildcats excel. Almost every player on their roster can drive past his man. The dribble-drive offense works to perfection and Kentucky scores at will.
The problems arise when teams switch up defenses. Against a zone defense or a sagging man-to-man, the Wildcats struggle.
When there are no clear lines to the basket and players cannot drive, the offense stagnates. The team has not learned how to react and adjust to opponents who cut off access to the paint.
Kentucky should try to penetrate as far as they can and kick it to a cutting teammate or look to drive and pass out for three-pointers.
Instead, the team tries to drive deep into the paint and either gets the ball stolen or commits a charge. More often, the offense consists of a lot of passes around the perimeter and a quick three as the shot clock is winding down.
Teams have learned what Kentucky’s weaknesses are and will play accordingly. Kentucky should expect to see more zone defense, and if they cannot score, they will not be very successful.
Anthony Davis is averaging a double-double so far this season with almost 13 points per game and just under 11 boards. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is right behind him, racking up almost eight rebounds per game despite playing the small forward position.
After those two players, however, the Kentucky Wildcats’ rebounding declines dramatically. The team is ranked fifth in the nation in rebounds per game, but mostly thanks to the two freshman.
Terrence Jones is averaging a mere 6.3 rebounds per game. For a power forward, his numbers should be much higher. After Jones, no Kentucky player is averaging more than 3.5 rebounds per game.
The Wildcats are a strong rebounding team, but not at every position. If Davis gets in foul trouble and Jones is having an off game, Kentucky is vulnerable.
Darius Miller in particular and also Davis’ backups, Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas, have got to start rebounding better.
Rebounding is a skill based on effort. Players must set their minds to blocking out and grabbing the ball.
For all their talent, the Kentucky Wildcats are not a deep team. The squad basically plays six players a game. Seventh man Kyle Wiltjer is a good scorer, but if he cannot improve his rebounding or defense, he will not see many minutes.
If one player on Kentucky’s team gets in foul trouble or (knock on wood) is injured, there is very little the Wildcats can do.
John Calipari must start giving his reserves more minutes so that they are better equipped to contribute when called upon in games.
Kentucky’s six main players will also need to rest more as the season progresses. For the team to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, their stars will need to be fresh.
Substitutions can spark an offense, and sometimes, reserves can win games for a team. Calipari must trust his subs give his starters longer breaks if the team is going to succeed at the end of the season.