This college basketball season makes so little sense.
Kentucky blows out Mississippi State by 22 and all fans can talk about is how poorly the Wildcats played. When they lose a heartbreaker in overtime to Arkansas, there's no shortage of good things to say about them.
I loved the team's fight in the second half. Julius Randle played his butt off on both sides of the ball, notching 20 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks. Alex Poythress, who finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, six rebounds and two blocks, had one of his best games of the season. Andrew Harrison knocked down the big three to send it into overtime after not hitting a single field goal up to that point. James Young and Aaron Harrison fulfilled their scoring duties.
Make no mistake: That was an ugly game. It was ugly on both sides, and there was no flow to the game, with a foul being called basically every 45 seconds. But the team responded to that ugly game. They fought. It was the kind of fight they've only shown in a couple of games this year.
There's still plenty to work on, don't worry. I'm willing to chalk Willie Cauley-Stein's subpar game up to foul trouble, but his impact in 18 minutes was minimal (two points and six rebounds). Free throws may have cost Kentucky the game. Randle can get to the line and make spectacular plays, but he's still missing too many gimmes.
The Wildcats still aren't there yet when defending the screen. They often fall victim to lazy switches instead of hedging and fighting through it. And the Harrison twins' body language? I'll let Troy from Community sum this one up:
But the takeaway from this game is that this young team went into a very tough place to play against a team that should be in the NCAA tournament this year, fought hard even though they trailed most of the game, hit a big clutch shot to send it into overtime and lost on a terrific play by the opposing team to end the game. I feel better about this game than I do the wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt combined.
"Kentucky (12-4, 2-1 SEC) headed home a loser, 87-85, and with sizable shares of both encouragement and disgust," wrote Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal. "The refusal to lose was a positive sign, but this is inarguably one that got away."
With Calipari-coached teams, the record never tells the whole story. Because this year's Wildcats are so young, their success must be measured in a different way: improvement. Against Arkansas, I saw marginal improvements in offense, still need to see more improvement defensively, but the attitude improvement was the most substantial.
Andrew Harrison is the key to Kentucky's chances of playing deep into March. Even when he wasn't scoring against Arkansas, he ran the dribble-drive to perfection at times—getting penetration and then kicking out for the three or throwing the lob. At other times, he seemed content to let everyone else control the action. Maybe that three at the end of regulation will give him the emotional boost he needs moving forward.
The SEC season is still young, and so is this team. This is a peak growth period. The 2010-11 team started out 5-5 in conference play and still had a ton of question marks, but they were improving. Then something finally clicked, they finished 8-1 and made a run to the Final Four.
This Kentucky team has yet to "click" like that. But the potential is there so long as they keep making baby steps, even in a loss.
Wildcats fans should be encouraged. The next step is to have a game like this and come away with the W.