Kentucky Basketball: Are Wildcats Finally Turning the Corner?

Matt KingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

Feb 1, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard/forward James Young (1) reacts during the first half at Mizzou Arena. The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Missouri Tigers 84-79. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports
Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't been watching Kentucky's season, their 84-79 victory over Missouri on Saturday might seem inconspicuous. Plenty of media outlets framed it as "Kentucky escapes Missouri." But it wasn't just an escape; it was a statement victory. And if the rest of college basketball teams were paying attention, they should be worried.

See, the easy narrative for this Kentucky team was, "Another underachieving John Calipari squad. It looks like 2012 was just the exception." But that's shortsighted. Last season's disappointment of a team is still fresh in everyone's minds, but you have to remember that was the only team Cal has coached at Kentucky that didn't at least reach the Elite Eight. It's entirely possible that last year was the exception, not the rule.

I say that now after totally doubting whether or not that was the case just last week. I wasn't sure that this Kentucky team had what it took to be a special team. The talent was there, but the effort was not. I said the Missouri game was a must-win and could possibly be the turning point of the season. Then, they went out and showed me something.

That team in Missouri played hard from start to finish. They weathered comeback attempt after comeback attempt and a hostile crowd. A Harrison twin actually hit the floor going after the ball. Julius Randle asserted himself and played under control.

Feb 1, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Julius Randle (30) shoots over Missouri Tigers guard Jordan Clarkson (5) and Missouri Tigers forward Johnathan Williams, III (3) during the first half at Mizzou Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-
Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky's scorers scored and dictated the offense. They played like a team. Most importantly, they played with effort. Whatever that players-only meeting did, it certainly seemed like it worked. Between setting that up and his improved play in 2014, Alex Poythress may be the most important guy on the team right now.

Sure, there are still holes to fix. While the Harrison twins are big, they're not quick, so that leaves the defense susceptible to super-fast guards like Missouri displayed, with Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson combining for 61 points. But even with that, Kentucky got stops when they needed to, answered when they needed to and came away with a huge road win.

The question now is: Will they keep this up? Lucky for them, there will be ample opportunity to prove that they can. The next seven games include Ole Miss at home, away games at Mississippi State and Auburn, Florida at home, away at Ole Miss, and then home games against two teams that have already beat the Wildcats beforeLSU and Arkansas. No rest for the weary, which is exactly what they need.

If Kentucky can show during this stretch that the game against Missouri was not a fluke and that it was indeed a turning point, the rest of the college basketball world will definitely be paying attention, because that will make them a very, very dangerous team.