Kentucky’s loss to Baylor on Friday night dropped the Wildcats to No. 11 in the national rankings and left no doubt that John Calipari’s team has plenty of problems to fix. The issues are team-wide, and there isn’t a player on the roster who doesn’t have some major growing up to do if this squad is going to be a contender in the postseason.
Even Julius Randle, who’s been one of the nation’s top freshmen since the season’s opening tip, can get better by cutting down on empty possessions. Randle’s team-high turnover rate is a composite of freshman mistakes and frequent double-teams, and fixing either or both will take some serious work on his part.
Herein, a closer look at Randle’s ball-security woes and the rest of the biggest concerns facing Coach Cal’s starting five after nine games.
Improvement: Stop giving away fouls
As a team, Kentucky hasn’t had that hard an adjustment to this season’s strict foul calls, but Andrew Harrison is an exception.
The point guard is averaging 3.6 hacks a game and has an active streak of four games in a row with at least four (including, embarrassingly, fouling out against Cleveland State).
Kentucky needs to tighten up its perimeter D, but there’s a huge difference between sticking close to your man and drawing unnecessary whistles.
With Harrison’s 6’6” length, he has an advantage over almost every player he guards, and he needs to learn to use it without piling up ticky-tack fouls that put his team in the penalty quickly.
Improvement: Take better three-pointers, not more three-pointers
Nearly half of Aaron Harrison’s 86 field-goal tries have come from beyond the arc. However, he’s shooting just .333 from deep, the worst percentage among the ‘Cats’ long-range threats.
As Harrison showed against Baylor, he can be far more effective (3-of-5 in the loss to the Bears) when he gets better looks at the basket, but he's been forcing too many shots that aren't in that category.
Kentucky will be better off if he passes up a few contested treys in favor of passing the ball or (unfashionable though it is) shooting a mid-range jumper against a less entrenched defense.
Improvement: Hit the defensive glass
Kentucky is the seventh-best rebounding team in the nation, and it still got destroyed on the boards in the loss to Baylor.
The Wildcats can count on cleaning up at the offensive end, where Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein have both been impressive, but more help is needed when it comes to defensive rebounding.
James Young is a prime candidate to provide that help, as the high-flying 6’6” swingman has the potential to grab a lot more than his current 3.3 boards a night.
Having Young focus on grabbing rebounds rather than leaking out in transition will hurt Kentucky’s fast break, but that’s an area where the ‘Cats are so overloaded with talent already that they can afford to take the hit.
Improvement: Cut down on turnovers
No player on the Wildcats roster is tougher to guard than Randle, so no player is going to get more touches on offense. However, that fact doesn’t entirely excuse Randle’s exorbitant average of 3.4 turnovers per game.
As a player who attracts constant double-teams, he needs to learn how to handle them without getting the ball stripped.
Even more importantly, in a problem that’s been endemic on the Kentucky roster this season, he must eliminate the offensive fouls he’s committing on illegal screens, which hurt his team on both offense and defense and which shouldn’t be any challenge to avoid.
Improvement: Convert on free-throw chances
Cauley-Stein’s superlative defense gave him something of a pass for his raw offensive game as a freshman. That situation, in turn, tended to disguise his most glaring flaw: his stomach-turning free-throw percentage of .372.
Now that Cauley-Stein has a year of college experience, he’s better but still not even competent at the line, shooting .515 this season.
His rapidly improving low-post game will get him more trips to the stripe as the year goes on, and he cannot afford to waste so many of the resulting potential points by bricking every other foul shot he attempts.