Kentucky Basketball: Biggest Keys for Wildcats Heading into Challenging Stretch

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2013

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 25:  John Calipari the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Aaron Harrison #2 and Andrew Harrison #5 during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 25, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Three games remain for Kentucky before 2014 arrives and every one should be a challenge. Two are against ranked opponents—North Carolina and Louisville—and the other foe is Belmont, which already owns a win over the Tar Heels.

Although these games will likely be an afterthought come tournament time, they are crucial building blocks to make sure the Wildcats are ready for conference play and eventually the big dance.

For a young squad, experience against good competition is an invaluable resource.

With that in mind, let's examine three areas Kentucky should be focused on heading into the tricky stretch. If the Wildcats emerge from the trio of games better in these aspects and get at least two wins along the way, it will be a success.


Identify Key Role Players

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 08:  Alex Poythress #22 and James Young #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate during the game against the UNC Asheville Bulldogs at Rupp Arena on November 8, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One thing that stood out after Kentucky's loss to Baylor was the distribution of minutes. All of the starters logged at least 33 minutes and none of the reserves were on the floor for more than seven in a game that was close throughout, which is a concern.

While Calipari will want a small, defined rotation for the latter stages of the season, there's still a need for a few key bench players.

It would be very difficult to navigate the tournament leaning that heavily on the starting five. So it's up to players like Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins to step up.

Poythress currently leads all reserves at 17 minutes and four points per contest. He should get a little extra run over the next three games. The same goes for Hawkins, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee.

It's important to get a feel for who's ready for an expanded role if necessary and now's the time to find out.


Increase Defensive Intensity

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 08:  Willie Cauley-Stein #30 of the Kentucky Wildcats blocks the shot of  Jaron Lane #5 of the UNC Asheville Bulldogs during the game at Rupp Arena on November 8, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Wildcats' roster is loaded with athleticism and there's no reason why they can't translate that into an elite defensive effort.

While their eight blocks per game rank inside the top 10 nationally, more than half of that total is courtesy of Willie Cauley-Stein. Moreover, they only average a handful of steals per game.

In order to reach their full potential, more intensity on defense is a must. Fighting through screens, contesting every shot and protecting the rim are all things Julius Randle, James Young and Co. are capable of, but haven't done consistently through 10 games.

Kentucky faces Louisville to end the tough stretch. The Cardinals are a national title contender averaging nearly 87 points per game. If the Wildcats don't put together a more inspired defensive effort for that game, it will probably end up being a harsh reality check for John Calipari's group.


Protect the Ball

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 10: John Calipari talks with Andrew Harrison#5 of the Kentucky Wildcats  during the game against the Boise State Broncos at Rupp Arena on December 10, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Wildcats aren't a typical team. They don't have an upperclassman running the point, bringing stability to the offense. Andrew Harrison, who averages under four assists per game, is tasked with a lot of the ball-handling duties, but in reality creating good looks is a team effort.

One problem that's popped up quite a bit in the early going, however, is turnovers. The most recent example being the last time out against Boise State when Kentucky gave the ball away 19 times. Instead of a blowout, it was a seven-point game with 14 minutes left.

Due their explosiveness on the offensive end, the Wildcats are talented enough to overcome some minor turnover issues.

But against teams like the ones they are going to face to finish out 2013, they can't give away the ball on the regular basis and expect to win.