Kentucky Basketball: 5 Ways Wildcats Must Improve Before March
Kentucky basketball entered the season with one goal in mind: to win its ninth national championship and second under current head coach John Calipari.
After somewhat struggling through non-conference play that saw losses against Baylor, Michigan State and North Carolina, Kentucky has seemed to find its way by winning 10 out of its last 12 games. A team full of freshmen and sophomores who are starting to find their roles is beginning to click together as a unit, showing Big Blue Nation the team it expected to see back in October.
While there have been improvements made from the beginning of the season, there are still things that need to be done for Kentucky to be a serious contender next month. This slideshow will take a look at the five biggest improvements that need to be made for the Wildcats to end up in Dallas for the Final Four.
Passing out of the Post
Due to his dominance before conference play started, Julius Randle soon began demanding double- and triple teams in the post from opposing teams. A combination of youth, strength and skill, he would try to power through the defense and still force a contested shot at the rim.
In the last couple of games, he's learned to slow down and look for the open player instead of trying to force his offense.
Teams are daring Kentucky to beat them by shooting jump shots. The Wildcats have plenty of players who can hit the open shot in Aaron Harrison, James Young and Andrew Harrison; they just need the passes to come back out to them from the post.
Kentucky's bigs need to continue to read the defense of opposing teams and learn when to attack the rim or kick the ball to the perimeter.
It's hard to pinpoint why Kentucky is as bad in transition defense as it is. But the Wildcats give up way too many easy baskets at the rim in transition.
A combination of players not sprinting back after missed shots or a turnover, players not rotating correctly and players not stopping the ball all combine for poor transition defense. The first time this reared its ugly head was in a loss early in the season against Michigan State.
The biggest problem is the transition defense hasn't been fixed yet. In Kentucky's most recent game against Mississippi State, the Bulldogs tried to push the tempo at every opportunity they could. Even with only seven scholarship players for the game, Mississippi State exposed Kentucky's biggest weakness.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has tried to take a stance on this by having a quick hook for any player who hangs his head or doesn't hurry back on defense. However, this could be the biggest problem for Kentucky heading into March.
Kentucky has the athletes and talent to switch on ball screens; however, too often Kentucky gets burned by pick-and-roll defenses. The Wildcats have shown when they can be successful guarding the screen-and-roll in their wins against Louisville and Ole Miss.
However, when Kentucky is playing a team that has a guard that can attack the rim as well as hit the mid-range jumper, the Wildcats have shown struggles. More importantly, the guards, especially Andrew Harrison, have struggled to fight through the ball screen.
When Kentucky has a lineup with Dakari Johnson on the floor, the defense needs to try to prevent Johnson from switching on a guard as much as possible. He has proven he can slow down an opposing guard on a switch when the screen is closer to the rim. However, when the screen is set out past the three-point line, Kentucky's guards need to fight over the screen.
From the big-men standpoint, they need to do a better job of not giving opposing guards so much space off the screen. Willie Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress all need to get up on the screen so there's not enough room for an opposing guard to get a full head of speed coming at them.
Improved Shooting Consistency
Kentucky is one of the best teams at scoring in the paint. Whether it's off an offensive rebound, finishing an alley-oop or feeding one of its post players, the Wildcats rarely miss a shot at the rim. However, that can't be said about jump shots and free throws.
The Wildcats are currently shooting 31 percent from behind the arc and 68 percent from the free-throw line. Both of these numbers need to continue to raise if Kentucky wants to make a serious run in March. There are too many good shooters on the team for Kentucky to only shoot 31 percent from three.
With teams daring the Wildcats to beat them by shooting from long range, players like James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and even Alex Poythress need to step their shooting up. Aaron Harrison and Young were both projected to be prolific shooters heading into the season. However, they are shooting 38 and 34 percent from behind the arc, respectively.
The free-throw shooting might be even more troubling due to how many times Kentucky gets to the line during games. Kentucky's size and attacking of the rim often leads to other teams getting into foul trouble and quickly getting Kentucky into the bonus.
There are only three players shooting over 70 percent from the line. With the NCAA tournament being more of a half-court game, the fouls should be expected to be more prevalent, and Kentucky should continue to get to the line at an exceptional rate.
Winning in a Hostile Environment
No matter how well Big Blue Nation travels, the Wildcats will spend the majority of March away from Rupp Arena.
So far, that hasn't been a good thing for Kentucky, as its only won two road games this year. More importantly the Wildcats have suffered all five losses away from Rupp. Two of the games were played in neutral sites, against Michigan State in Chicago and Baylor in Dallas.
Come March, the Wildcats can't use youth as a reason for road losses anymore. They would have already played hostile road conference games, where fans usually come out in full force when Kentucky comes into town.
Kentucky needs to start getting off to better starts when its playing away from Rupp Arena. When the Wildcats fall behind quick away from Rupp, they start to press, which often leads to bad shots or turnovers. They begin to not trust each other and try to play hero ball by going one-on-one to help get Kentucky back in the game.
It's important Kentucky gets a couple more road wins during conference play to get some confidence heading into postseason play.