After suffering a heartbreaking loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Kentucky Wildcats welcomed the LSU Tigers to Rupp Arena on Saturday. The game came amid talk of the Wildcats possibly missing this year’s NCAA Tournament. With their 75-70 win over LSU, Kentucky quieted that talk, at least for the time being.
However, the win over the Tigers did not come easy. Although they did pull out the victory, the Wildcats continued to show a tendency, at times, of inconsistent play. While Kentucky fans were happy to get the win, many hoped for a stronger, more consistent performance from the Wildcats.
The one thing that has been a constant for Kentucky this season has been the stellar defensive play of freshman, Nerlens Noel and during this win, Noel continued his defensive dominance. Noel finished the game with six blocks and one steal to go along with his 10 points and eight rebounds.
In 19 games thus far, Noel has blocked 82 shots (4.3 per game) and also had 46 steals (2.4 per game) on the season. If Noel continues on this pace, he has a chance of having more of a defensive impact, in terms of combined blocks and steals, than Anthony Davis did last year during his freshman year. Statistically speaking, of course.
More importantly, for many Kentucky fans, Kentucky freshman Alex Poythress finally reawakened “The Beast.” Poythress led Kentucky in both scoring and rebounding in the win. He finished the game with 20 points and 12 rebounds, the first double-double in his collegiate career. It was the first time he finished with 20 points in a game since the 104-75 victory over LIU-Brooklyn on November 23rd.
Prior to this game, head coach John Calipari had been working individually with Poythress on a number of things, including his confidence. After the game, Coach Calipari expressed how proud he was of Poythress’ performance:
“I was so proud of Alex. I can’t even begin to tell you,” coach John Calipari said. “It’s like torture what we’re doing to him, just making him run, making him do individual (workouts), pushing him. And for him to go out and make those free throws and come up with those balls and do the things that he did to help us win the game … he’s getting it.”
If Poythress continues to “get it” he could be a potential x-factor for the Wildcats moving forward. He has an extremely versatile game that poses an impossible matchup for many defenders.
However, this win was an essential microcosm of the entire season for the young Kentucky Wildcats team. The Wildcats have played inconsistently all year. They jumped out to an early lead over the LSU Tigers and maintained a double-digit lead for a large portion of the first half. Kentucky led LSU 42-31 at the end of the first half.
However, with about four minutes left in the game, LSU had trimmed the lead to five points. LSU would eventually have the ball with 30 seconds remaining the in the game, down by three points, with an opportunity to tie the game. Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress would sink four straight free throws to give the Wildcats the victory.
This type of inconsistent play has been consistent with the Wildcats all year. In their 59-55 loss to Alabama, Kentucky led by nine points, 33-24, at halftime. In another close victory, Kentucky led Vanderbilt 35-24 at halftime before barely winning 60-58. In the season-opening win over Maryland, Kentucky led 49-36 at the half. Kentucky was outscored by Maryland, 33-23 in the second half, but was able to pull out a 72-69 win.
Many Kentucky fans are hoping that the team can play more consistently as the season moves forward. Consistent play will be especially critical as the SEC Conference Tournament approaches. As Kentucky continues to build their NCAA Tournament resume, the good must outweigh the bad as the team moves forward towards a possible berth in March.