Kentucky Basketball: Biggest Lessons Learned in SEC Play So Far

Bobby ReaganFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2014

Kentucky Basketball: Biggest Lessons Learned in SEC Play So Far

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Kentucky is in the midst of conference play, and as expected with a roster full of young players, it has been a roller coaster so far. 

    Kentucky currently has a record of 15-5 and 5-2 in SEC play, with losses on the road to Arkansas and LSU. 

    The Wildcats always get circled on the schedule when they travel in the SEC, and opposing fans make sure to come out in full force for those games. With that being the most obvious lesson learned so far for Kentucky, we will take a look at other lessons the Wildcats have learned in SEC play so far.

Where Willie Goes, the Defense Goes

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    Tim Mueller/Associated Press

    Willie Cauley-Stein began the season looking like the second coming of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel on defense. He blocked shots left and right, as well as showed incredible on-ball defense when he had to switch to covering a guard.

    Since the Wildcats entered SEC play, however, Cauley-Stein has looked more like a ghost. The sophomore has struggled mightily outside of a win against Georgia.

    In Kentucky's first seven SEC games, Kentucky has given up an average of 67 points per game, giving up 87 points in each of its two losses.

    A majority of the team's struggles go hand-in-hand with Cauley-Stein's play as of late.

    He has been the rim protector and defensive anchor on a team that hasn't lived up to par yet, similar to Tyson Chandler and the Knicks last season. 

    The truth is that Kentucky's guards give up too much penetration in the lane, which is where Cauley-Stein needs to be. Even if it's not blocking shots, he alters plays with pass deflections or by making the offensive player think about shooting.

    When he is struggling, though, players aren't afraid to attack him in the paint. He often starts to press trying to block everything, which leads to easy baskets or offensive rebounds. 

    While he is not the best player on the roster, he is arguably the most important due to his defensive presence, which is severely lacking with Kentucky.

James Young Is the Go-To Guy

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    James Young came into the season with expectations to be one of the best freshman players in the country. With his ability to shoot from behind the arc and finish at the rim while standing at 6"6", he was expected to be a mismatch for most opposing defenses this season.

    Young is starting to come into his own in conference play. He is averaging 16.2 points per game, including a 26-point game against Mississippi State. He also had 23-point games against LSU and Arkansas.

    With teams starting to throw double- and triple-teams at Julius Randle in the post, it's up to Young to be the main scoring option for Kentucky. The Harrison twins have struggled to find their rhythm offensively, and with Young in stride, it's important for him to shoulder the scoring load. 

    Young has begun to look for his shot more during conference play as well, which he needs to continue to do.

    If he is scoring, SEC foes will have to start deciding whether to plan against Young or Randle. When Young is scoring from the outside, he opens the paint for Randle to work and also allows the Harrisons to penetrate.

There Is Depth to This Team

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    With seven former McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, it's tough to imagine the team not having depth; however, Kentucky had a stretch earlier this season when it was getting minimal production from its bench players.

    That has not been the case in SEC play, though.

    In fact, it's almost been the opposite; the bench players, especially Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, have outshone the starters.

    Poythress returned to Lexington for his sophomore season after starting the majority of games during his freshman year. While he struggled early in the season, he began to find his niche coming off the bench this season. He scored in double digits in five of seven conference games and, more importantly, has played impressive defense and found an intensity that he lacked during his freshman year.

    Johnson, one of the six McDonald's All-Americans who signed with Kentucky this season, was expected to challenge Cauley-Stein for a starting spot during the preseason; however, he struggled with conditioning, foul problems and adjusting to the college game.

    It looked like he would be buried deep on John Calipari's bench, but since the calendar turned to 2014 and Kentucky began conference games, Johnson has outplayed Cauley-Stein and looked like the center Kentucky fans expected. 

    Depth is always important, but with a roster full of talent, it's important that the bench plays well for Kentucky. That way, Calipari can tweak his five on the court whenever he feels like and can dictate the way the game is played.