Kentucky Basketball: 5 Reasons the 'Cats Are Finally Firing on All Cylinders

Sean Bielawski@@SeanBielawskiContributor IIIFebruary 28, 2013

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Reasons the 'Cats Are Finally Firing on All Cylinders

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    Kentucky easily handled Mississippi State Wednesday night with an 85-55 win in Rupp Arena. For the Wildcats, it was their third consecutive victory but one that will do nothing to improve their NCAA tournament resume.

    Wednesday, Kentucky merely avoided a bad loss, but now, the season-defining games have arrived for the Wildcats. To close the regular season, Kentucky has two road games at Arkansas and Georgia before returning home to take on Florida.

    Currently, Kentucky is sitting right on the bubble with little room for error. Luckily, the Wildcats seem to be playing their best basketball of the season.

    Here are the five reasons Kentucky is finally firing on all cylinders.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein

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    When Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12, there was major concern as to how Kentucky would replace what he brought to the table. Noel was an emotional leader, setting the tone not only with his defense but with his energy.

    Willie Cauley-Stein had big shoes to fill, but he has stepped in and done an excellent job. With 13 blocks in the last three games, he has protected the rim almost as well as Noel. Offensively in that span, he is averaging 13 points while shooting 70.8 percent from the floor.

    More importantly, Cauley-Stein has done well bringing the intangibles that Noel brought every night. He has played hard and brought intensity, setting an emotional tone for his teammates.

4. Point Guard Play

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    Ryan Harrow has had a rough year, and he has received more than his share of criticism. Harrow has been inconsistent, having games where he simply did not give his team enough for Kentucky to be successful.

    That was on full display in Kentucky’s consecutive losses to Florida and Tennessee. In 37 combined minutes during those two games, Harrow had zero points, three turnovers and one assist. No team will stand much of a chance with that kind of production from the point guard spot.

    In the last three games, Harrow has played well. He is averaging 15.7 points, 4.7 assists and 1.0 turnovers. His play is a huge reason Kentucky is playing well right now, and it will be one of the deciding factors as to how the rest of the season plays out. 

3. Freshmen Stepping Up

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    The talent of Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress has never been in question. Both players will be first-round NBA draft picks if they decide to leave Kentucky after this season. The challenge has been getting them to play up to their potential.

    Goodwin can be out of control at times, and while he has still turned the ball over lately, Goodwin has been making more positive plays than negative ones for the Wildcats. He had all 18 of his points after halftime in the win over Missouri and has scored in double figures each of the last three games.

    With Poythress, it’s just a matter of him bringing it every single night. The last three games, Poythress has been more aggressive, which is what Kentucky needs. In the last two games, he is averaging 18.5 points while shooting 71.4 percent from the field.

    Consistency from Goodwin and Poythress has been an issue all year. If they put forth a quality effort every time out the way they have recently, the Wildcats will be awfully tough to beat.

2. Veteran Leadership

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    Looking around college basketball this year, it’s clear that the most successful teams have one thing in common: veteran leadership. Miami and Florida are teams full of upperclassmen. The same can be said of Kansas, Indiana and Duke.

    Kentucky has not had that luxury this year. There were no proven veterans to go along with the talented recruiting class.

    Recently, however, senior transfer Julius Mays has assumed that role, and it has shown with Mays providing a steady influence. He played all but two minutes combined in the wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri. Against the Tigers, Mays had a season-high 24 points in the team’s biggest win of the year. 

1. Toughness

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    When Kentucky was blown out by 30 at Tennessee, the Wildcats did not show any pride. There was no fight or resistance as Tennessee’s lead ballooned in the first half.

    That has not been the case the last couple few games. It wasn’t the case when Vanderbilt made a run in the second half, cutting a double-digit second-half lead to two with just under four minutes to play. It definitely wasn’t the case when Kentucky fell behind by 13 in the first half against Missouri.

    That kind of resilience and toughness has not been there for Kentucky this season. The Wildcats will need all that and more in their season-defining stretch to end the regular season.