For all the star power Kentucky basketball can boast this season, these Wildcats are not built to pull off the kind of six-man rotation that won the 2012 national title. If John Calipari’s team is going to climb back up from its current No. 18 ranking, it’s going to need some major contributions from the bench.
Sophomore Alex Poythress has been the leader of the second unit from opening night on, and the role has fit him far better than last year’s attempt to make him a scoring weapon. Still, even he has room to improve in one of Kentucky’s biggest areas of need: defensive rebounding.
Poythress and Dakari Johnson are both getting an inordinately high percentage of their boards on the offensive glass. Second-chance points are all well and good, but what the ‘Cats really need is to stop the opposition from cleaning up its own misses, and the reserves have to play a leading role in that effort.
Poythress and Johnson have an even more unwelcome trait in common: They’re both shooting less than 50 percent from the foul line. Neither player takes all that many foul shots, but that’s no excuse for missing them at such a high frequency.
Many of the same concerns apply to Marcus Lee, the other big man who’s seen meaningful action off the bench. Using him as a designated jump-ball center didn’t work out for Coach Cal, but if the high-flying freshman picks up his contributions on the defensive glass, more minutes would be in order.
The backcourt has its part to play in this equation, too, and that’s a load Dominique Hawkins has been shouldering pretty much alone. The comparatively unheralded frosh has gradually earned a larger and larger share of minutes behind PG Andrew Harrison, and he’s done the best job of any member of the roster in limiting Kentucky’s turnover epidemic.
Where Hawkins needs to improve, and badly, is as a shooter. Even if he’s not planning to call his own number very often, he needs to convert a lot more of his chances than the .350 field-goal shooting and .200 three-point accuracy he’s managed to date.
The wild card in this deck is senior Jarrod Polson, a career benchwarmer who turned in a couple of eye-catching games for last year’s point guard-poor squad. Calipari is obviously thinking about expanding his role after giving him 21 minutes against Belmont.
If Polson does start seeing regular action, the most important element he can bring to the table is ball-handling. If he can keep Kentucky from giving away possessions (and occasionally find the open man for a jump shot or two), he’ll be a serious asset even if he never takes a shot.
Indeed, the one area Kentucky’s reserves don’t especially need to worry about is point production. The starters on the floor can do the heavy lifting, so the only time the subs should need to shoot is when they get a wide-open look.