Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats' 5 Biggest Problems and Their Solutions
Kentucky basketball has found itself in unfamiliar territory.
The Wildcats are unranked with a record of 13-6 and 4-2 in SEC play.
After starting the season ranked at No. 3, Big Blue Nation had high hopes for this batch of young 'Cats. With losses to teams like Alabama and Texas A&M, people want to know what's wrong with Kentucky.
Whether it's Kentucky's inability to close games or find its identity, this slideshow will address the five biggest problems along with the solutions for the rest of the season.
With the early-season growing pains out of the way and Kentucky firmly planted in conference play, the Wildcats must solve these problems if they want to be a factor come March.
5. What Defense to Run?
While Nerlens Noel might be the best individual defender in the country, Kentucky—as a team—doesn't have an identity.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been forced to mix a 2-3 zone to go with his staple man-to-man defense. While players like Elston Turner, Alex Len and Jordan McRae have lit up the Wildcats on different occasions this year, the question of what to do defensively has to be asked.
The correct answer is not letting players in the post for Noel to attempt to swat away their shots.
What Kentucky needs to do in order to be successful is wreak havoc defensively. The Wildcats are athletic enough to run a trapping press after made baskets. This needs to happen, especially when Willie Cauley-Stein comes back from a knee injury.
Even though he's a defensive liability, when Kyle Wiltjer is in the game, Kentucky is more athletic than any other team in the SEC this year. Instead of having Cauley-Stein guarding the guy inbounding the ball and then trapping, I would switch freshman Alex Poythress to that role. At 6'7" he is long enough to force a hard trap and quick enough to recover while leaving Noel and Cauley-Stein in the backcourt to protect the rim.
By trapping this way, it should limit the amount of times the taller wings Kentucky struggles with to touch the ball.
4. Free Throw Shooting
Kentucky is shooting 64 percent from the charity stripe as a team.
Kentucky only has one player, Julius Mays, shooting over 80 percent from the line.
While the simple solution for better results from the free throw line is practice, there's more to the story than that. Kentucky needs to attack the rim more.
There's no reason why a player like Kyle Wiltjer, shooting 78 percent from the stripe, can't get there more simply by playing inside. The sophomore has currently been at the free-throw line just 27 times this season, a number that needs to increase.
When Kentucky played at Alabama, they put Wiltjer inside, especially late in the game to run the offense. With the Oregon native being 6'10", he will have a mismatch against almost every power forward in the conference. By playing inside out, Wiltjer will draw fouls with his craftiness around the basket.
The other thing that needs to happen is getting the ball in the hands of Wiltjer and Mays late in games. The Wildcats have played in close games in nearly all six conference matchups so far, and that means free throws down the stretch will be key. Calipari needs to design plays to get the ball immediately in the hands of one of these two players to hit the free throws so they can seal the win.
3. What Is Archie Goodwin's Role?
Archie Goodwin is the most athletic player on Kentucky.
Archie Goodwin is the most frustrating player on Kentucky.
Archie Goodwin is the best slasher on Kentucky.
Archie Goodwin has the worst shot selection on Kentucky.
Catch the drift?
Goodwin might as well legally change his name to Jekyll and Hyde Goodwin. He has the ability to beat anyone off the dribble to get to the rim, but has just as good a chance to be called for a charge while getting there.
The coaching staff as well as Goodwin need to figure out what his role on the team is. He needs to adapt so Big Blue Nation doesn't let out a collective groan when he touches the ball late in the game. If it means putting Goodwin on the bench as the clock runs down late in a game, so be it.
Most importantly, Goodwin needs to stop sounding like a Dr. Seuss rhyme and become a consistent scorer and defender of 2-guards.
2. Will Kentucky Ever Close a Game Out?
It's turned almost into a ritual this year.
Kentucky surges to a double digit lead in the first half before surrendering the lead as it struggles offensively. Then it squeaks out the victory or suffers a loss it shouldn't have.
The Wildcats stop making the extra pass or attacking the rim and instead settle for outside jumpers or contested drives. After watching the game against Alabama, Kentucky spent the first half swinging the ball around finding the open man or exploiting the mismatch.
In this case it was Wiltjer with a much shorter defender on him. In the first half of the game Wiltjer shot 4-for-7 from the field. In the second half he only had two field-goal attempts.
Going forward, Kentucky needs to utilize the mismatch in order to build its lead in the second half instead of squandering it.
1. Who to Run the Offense Through?
Not too many 6'10" players should have the offense run through them, but there aren't any other players like Wiltjer.
Whenever Wiltjer is on the floor he needs to touch the ball on every possession. This is especially true when Kentucky's opponents are running a zone, something the Wildcats should expect to see a lot.
When Wiltjer is playing against the zone, he needs to be set at the elbow of the top of the key due to his diversity. At this position he is able to step behind the arc, hit the extended jumper or use his elite passing skills to pass over the zone.
His height gives him the advantage to see over the top part of the zone to find Julius Mays for an open three or Poythress and Noel diving to the rim.
When teams run man-to-man against Kentucky with Wiltjer on the floor Calipari needs to keep running the high-ball screen for Ryan Harrow with Noel and Wiltjer. With a de facto triangle offense between those three, it keeps the defense honest. Defenders are forced to help on Harrow's drive or Noel's roll leaving Wiltjer open or they are forced to stay on Wiltjer giving a clear driving lane for Harrow and Noel.
With Wiltjer gaining confidence with each game it is important that the offense is run through him on almost every possession when he is in the game.