Kentucky Basketball: The 5 Most Impressive Wildcats in 2013-14 Regular Season
Kentucky basketball isn't having the season it expected to have. With a preseason No. 1 ranking and the hope of winning the SEC regular-season title before heading into March with a No. 1 seed all but locked up for the NCAA tournament, this season feels like a let-down so far for the Wildcats.
With just one regular-season game left against rival Florida, Kentucky sits at 22-8 and 12-5 in SEC play. However, the Wildcats have struggled lately, going just 3-3 in their last six games with losses to South Carolina and Arkansas.
While there are plenty of questions lingering around the Wildcats as they head into the postseason, there have been plenty of bright moments at the individual level this season. We'll take a look at the five most impressive Wildcats during the 2013-14 season. This slideshow will take in a variety of components including stats, responding to adversity and how they have fit their roles on the team.
5. Jarrod Polson
Jarrod Polson was a walk-on from Kentucky, who was always a fan-favorite due to his baby-face looks and story of growing up a Wildcats fan before dawning the blue and white jersey. However, in the last two years, he's transformed himself from a benchwarmer to a rotation player.
After filling in last year when Ryan Harrow struggled or missed games, Polson showed he can compete at this level. Sure, he wasn't a starting point guard, but he could come in and play a couple minutes to give the starter a break or fill in if there was ever foul trouble.
He's continued to do that this year as a senior. He leads the team in shooting from behind the arc, something that Kentucky has struggled with this year. When Kentucky goes man-to-man, teams usually take advantage of the mismatch on Polson. However, when Kentucky runs its 2-3 zone, Polson has thrived defensively.
While he's not a defensive stalwart, he's a calming sense offensively. He rarely turns the ball over, committing just seven turnovers in 245 minutes played. He doesn't fill the stat sheet, but he's provided depth to Kentucky's point guard situation and veteran leadership.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein
Willie Cauley-Stein's season has mirrored that of Kentucky's. Both had high expectations and had swings of brilliance and terrible play.
Cauley-Stein showed at times how he can be the most valuable player on Kentucky's roster due to his defensive strength. His athleticism allows him to challenge guards while his size obviously puts him in the paint. He uses his long arms to recover whenever he gets beat off the dribble and challenge shots at the rim, resulting in a couple of games recording nine blocks.
However, he's also shown the ability to shrink for periods of times. Whether he's mentally not into a game or struggling defensively, when Cauley-Stein isn't playing well, he looks like one of the worst players in the country.
Despite his up-and-down play, Cauley-Stein has been one of the better players this year for Kentucky in regards to expectations. He is averaging over seven points and six rebounds per game, but more importantly his value defensively has shown to be the most important aspect to his game.
3. Dominique Hawkins
How can a guy who is playing nine minutes a game and averaging less than a point per game be the third-most impressive player this season for Kentucky? Because of what was expected of Dominique Hawkins this year.
Hawkins, who hails from Richmond, Ky., about 20 minutes south of Kentucky's campus was a late commit for the Wildcats after leading his team to a state championship and winning Mr. Basketball in Kentucky. He wasn't expected to play this season except during blowouts, and the possibility of a redshirt was always there.
Hawkins, though, proved himself early. He outworked his competition in early practices and made his way up to the backup point guard spot, leapfrogging senior Jarrod Polson. Hawkins brought the energy off the bench defensively, often drawing the opponent's best guard.
He never worried about his scoring output, usually passing up a shot in an effort to work for a better one. However, much like Cauley-Stein, Hawkins was the one guard Kentucky could rely on defensively on the perimeter.
For a guy with no expectations, Hawkins has proved himself at the highest level.
2. Dakari Johnson
Early in the season Dakari Johnson looked like he would barely be able to contribute anything this year. He struggled with conditioning, foul trouble, speed and finishing at the rim. However, something clicked as the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014 for Johnson.
He quickly worked his way into the starting lineup and the McDonald's All-American seemed to have adjusted to the college game. Johnson began to use his size, standing at 7'0" and weighing 265 pounds, to dominate positioning in the paint.
For a freshman at his size, Johnson has some of the better footwork in the post. When he touches the ball, he's quick at making a move to the rim or kicking it back out to a guard and looking to repost. Defensively, he's adjusted to challenging shots by keeping his arms high in the air, forcing smaller players to shoot over him.
Johnson is also one of the few players that understands basketball is supposed to be fun. Anytime after a basket or drawing a foul during a key moment in the game, Johnson is shown clapping, talking to teammates or getting the Rupp Arena crowd involved.
1. Julius Randle
There should be no question that Julius Randle has been the most impressive Wildcat during the 2013-14 season. He started the season off by racking up double-doubles and making his name known nationally as one of the best players in the country.
Teams started to plan against Randle once conference play rolled around. They would dare Kentucky to beat them from the outside, sending multiple players to swarm Randle whenever he caught the ball. Whether that frustrated him or if it was his teammates not hitting shots, Randle hit a little bit of a rough patch statistically during the middle of SEC play.
However, he's picked his game back up and has proven to be a walking double-double again. His aggressiveness paid off recently when he hit a game-winning shot against LSU in overtime with just a couple seconds remaining after corralling a loose ball.
Kentucky fans will likely only get this year with Randle as a Wildcat and should appreciate the talent they get to watch whenever he plays. He's been able to live up to all the expectations, if not play better than them from before the season started.