After falling to Michigan State for their first loss of the season, it's clear the Kentucky Wildcats need to improve their offensive play on the perimeter.
There's no reason to hit the panic button, of course. Even when you're the No. 1 team in the country, losing to No. 2 is no tragedy, especially for the freshmen-laden Wildcats. Still, the 78-74 defeat highlighted areas in which a young squad must improve in order to contend for a national championship.
Kentucky certainly has the interior weapons to do so.
Julius Randle was an absolute monster against a seasoned Michigan State team. He was unstoppable on the block, using a blend of power, speed and post technique to produce even when the Spartans threw three defenders at him.
With Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein in the starting five and Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson in the second unit, the Wildcats have loads of size and talent in the frontcourt. That will carry them through the season and into March, but they will need more than forwards to be a Final Four team.
Why was Michigan State able to triple-team Randle? Well, Kentucky just couldn't knock down its outside shots.
The Wildcats went 4-of-20 from beyond the arc and dished out just eight assists as a team, leaning on their isolation offense to produce any points. Randle, Andrew Harrison and James Young were able to operate in the restricted area, but the floor was crowded due to the perimeter ineffectiveness.
Andrew found ways to score without jacking threes, but Aaron Harrison missed all five of his long-range attempts. They're both 6'6" and can handle the ball, so they'll be able to use their size and off-the-bounce game to get higher-percentage looks. Still, if they can't use their height to shoot over smaller defenders from outside, their dribble drives will be more difficult.
When Young is not clicking from outside, Andrew has no kick-out options on drives. Young went 3-of-11 on threes, and Kentucky had no other shooter capable of creating spacing.
Kentucky had to hope Poythress would develop more of a wing skill set in his sophomore year. Defenders do not respect his shooting outside, and he lacks the agility to take them off the dribble.
At all five positions, the Wildcats can win the size battle, but that top-to-bottom edge becomes moot if defenses can just pack the paint against them. Credit Randle and company for battling through the bigs to score in the loss, but the task will only get tougher.
Randle could make life easier for himself if he becomes more comfortable passing out of the post.
With his back to the basket, he found Young for an open three after the Spartans collapsed the paint. Considering the Harrisons are struggling to facilitate the offense off the dribble so far, they could become more comfortable shooting if they spotted up more in an inside-out attack.
By threatening inside and moving the ball back out, Randle would be able to work inside without facing constant double or triple coverage. If he could hit 60 percent of his shots against Michigan State's swarming D, imagine what he could do with some space.
Yet for now, opposing teams have proof that they can compete with Kentucky's athletes by protecting the rim and giving up longer looks. Few SEC teams have the size to make that strategy work, but the Wildcats have to figure out a way to hit the shots they're given come tournament time.
Kentucky is facing other issues—Michigan State exploited the perimeter defense and Kentucky lost its composure at times—but those will improve as the young players gain experience.
Taking better threes and making a respectable percentage of them is a matter of practice. John Calipari must make his perimeter offense the top priority if he wants Kentucky to round into the juggernaut it can potentially be.
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