As the Kentucky Wildcats gear up for the rigors of SEC basketball, they’re coming off their biggest win of the season. Still, for all the bragging rights a victory over arch-rival Louisville earned them, the ‘Cats have won just two in a row since getting lit up by North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
If John Calipari’s squad wants to turn that fragile winning streak into a run at the conference title, it’s got several lessons yet to learn.
1. Forget about beating the Cardinals
The long layoff between a December 28 signature win and the January 8 opening of conference play gives Kentucky an awfully long time to feel good about itself. That victory hangover is especially deceptive because so many of the Wildcats' previous weaknesses are still lurking to trip them up.
Winning in front of a raucous Rupp Arena crowd is hardly going to translate into success away from home for a very young team that’s had enormous difficulty maintaining its intensity for 40 minutes.
Then, too, the ‘Cats feasted on an underperforming Louisville front line that bears little resemblance to the bruisers they’ll see when Florida or Tennessee takes the court.
2. Keep sharing the ball
Ironically, Kentucky displayed some of its best offensive teamwork in a game in which it totaled a meager eight assists. Although the Wildcats didn’t set up many baskets with their passing against Louisville, they did keep the ball-hawking Cardinals from living off turnovers with just 11 giveaways for the day.
The primary element of that success was letting Andrew Harrison play his game, scoring when the opportunity presented itself (frequently) and passing only when he needed to. By having Aaron Harrison and James Young take on more of the ball-handling responsibilities, Kentucky made its offense less predictable and let its nominal point guard dominate while his jump shots were falling.
With high-pressure defenses from Arkansas and Florida looming on the conference schedule, the ‘Cats must make sure that their low turnover count against Louisville’s guards becomes the rule, not the exception.
3. Play like the underdog
Of Kentucky’s four ranked opponents to date, Louisville was the first that the Wildcats weren’t really expected to beat.
Not coincidentally, it was also the first such game Kentucky won.
The intensity that comes with being overlooked helps the ‘Cats far more than the unearned swagger that’s contributed to their offense imploding against Michigan State and Baylor.
In addition, playing without expectations might help solve one problem that still persisted in the Louisville win: clutch free-throw shooting, or lack thereof. The Wildcats are a disappointing team from the stripe anyway (.665), but in their four meetings with ranked foes, they’ve choked their way to percentages of .556, .522 and .533 in three of them.