The Kentucky Wildcats’ last two games have included a dominating win over a very good Boise State team and a come-from-ahead loss to then-No. 20 Baylor. In a nutshell, that’s the story of Kentucky’s season, where even different halves of the same game have featured wildly different performances from John Calipari’s inexperienced charges.
As the ‘Cats gear up to take on North Carolina—a team that’s on even more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde pace this season—it’s time to consider how they can go from an occasionally great team to a reliably great one. Here’s a recipe for cutting down on the precipitous drop-offs that have plagued Kentucky over the first quarter of the season:
1. Make your free throws under pressure
This issue is the most obvious similarity between the Wildcats and the erratic Tar Heels squad they’re facing on Saturday. Both teams have suffered a pair of close defeats, and both teams have missed more than enough foul shots to win those games.
In UNC’s case, the opponents have been worse (Belmont and UAB) and so has the free-throw shooting (a combined .441 over the two games). Kentucky hasn’t been quite as bad, but the ‘Cats have bricked a combined 27 free throws in their two losses, shooting .542 instead of their season average of .670 from the stripe.
2. Stop giving away possessions
Although part of Kentucky’s problem has been foolish turnovers—especially in the loss to Michigan State—there’s a bigger issue that’s undermining the Wildcats’ possession count: defensive rebounding. Baylor missed 38 shots against UK, but more than half of them turned into extra possessions for the Bears because of offensive boards.
Kentucky’s own offensive rebounders have been crucial to the team’s success, so the ‘Cats can’t possibly be unaware of how much they’re helping the opposition by allowing second-chance points. Yes, some of the teams they’ve faced have featured elite rebounding talents (including surprising Ryan Watkins of Boise State), but Kentucky has Julius Randle on its side, so quality opposition is no excuse for allowing rampant offensive-rebounding chances night in and night out.
3. Keep the defensive intensity high
Kentucky just smothered a Boise State offense that’s 10th in the nation in points per game, holding the Broncos more than 30 points below their season average. That’s the kind of defense the Wildcats should be playing every possession of every game, and they haven’t done it.
Both Michigan State and Baylor shot better than 45 percent from the field in beating the ‘Cats, a far cry from the 31.9 percent the Broncos managed. Much of the damage has been done from the point guard spot—Keith Appling and Kenny Chery combined for 40 points in their respective wins—highlighting pick-and-roll D as an area that Kentucky especially needs to shore up.