Kentucky Basketball: Final 2013-14 Grades After National Title Game Loss
Any freshman, no matter how talented, has his issues adapting to the rigors of college basketball. Kentucky's gifted class is no different with its McDonald's All-Americans living through the transition seven times over.
Despite the struggles UK endured during the regular season, coach John Calipari found a remedy just in time for the postseason, and his baby Wildcats caught fire. They survived taut thrillers one after another, advancing all the way to the national finals before UConn's crew of ice-cold veterans sawed off their challenge.
Many of these Wildcats won't be wearing Big Blue next season, so any lessons they've learned over the past five months will have to stand them in good stead as they head off for professional careers. But before they go, let's evaluate how Kentucky's youngsters performed during the 2013-14 campaign.
Similar to my piece on Florida from earlier this week, we'll consider Kentucky's conference and nonconference performances along with each starter individually and the bench as a collective.
The names always change in Lexington, but will the results stay the same?
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Kentucky vs. the SEC
There's no shame in three losses to Florida. After all, the Gators were the No. 1 team in the nation and joined Kentucky in the Final Four.
UK's other SEC defeats, however, drew some head scratches. Two losses to Arkansas, one to LSU and—most bewildering of all—a defeat against South Carolina cast Kentucky as a wildly schizophrenic team capable of playing up or down to any competition.
The Wildcats' closing kick in the regular season was more like a groggy, lethargic stumble. They weren't held below one point per possession in any game before Feb. 27 according to Ken Pomeroy. It happened four times in the next seven games including the SEC tournament.
Even the wins had more than their share of warts. UK needed to score only 55 points to beat Alabama, and that's fortunate because the Cats missed 23 of their season-high 28 three-point attempts.
UK should count its lucky stars that the SEC was laden with inexperienced, inconsistent teams just like itself. Some of those games would have ended in heartbreak against veteran teams from, say, the ACC or the Big Ten. Another trip to the NIT would have been unlikely, but betting the mortgage against such a shortcoming could have been foolish.
Kentucky vs. the Nation
Say what you like about John Calipari—and many do—but he doesn't shy away from putting his youthful charges through a difficult nonconference schedule.
Kentucky played more non-league games against eventual NCAA tournament foes (five) than it did in SEC action (four). That the Cats lost three of the five games ended up being immaterial, especially since title game conqueror UConn only amassed two regular-season wins against tournament foes itself.
A troubling aspect of the nonconference losses was that Baylor and North Carolina both beat UK at what would become its own strengths: offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line.
Baylor pulled 18 of 33 available offensive rebounds in a December win at the very same AT&T Stadium where the Cats would fall short of the title. UNC became the first of three opponents to make 25 or more free throws against UK. Kentucky lost all three of those games.
An offense that was staggering down the stretch—38.7 percent from the floor from Feb. 12 to March 21—recovered to shoot 50 percent during its second through fifth tournament victories. Two of those victories came against Louisville and Wichita State, both ranking among Pomeroy's top 12 defensive teams (free link).
While the SEC schedule frequently exposed the worst of this Kentucky team, its performances outside the league offered glimpses of a team too talented to be written off. If it got focused, it was a group capable of making a run. It did, and it did.
Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress (pictured here going head over heels in the title game) and Marcus Lee could all have taken their McDonald's All-American credentials and started for any team in the nation. For UK, they became role players, but those role players were key in the epic March run.
Johnson ripped down 24 rebounds in three SEC tournament games, but that dominance seemed aberrant when he was invisible against Kansas State and Wichita State. He recovered to average 11 points and 5.3 boards against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.
After a quiet night against Kansas State, Poythress had made only six of 19 two-point shots over his past eight games. In his next five, he made 14 of 15, frequently helping to pull UK back from early deficits.
"The only thing that holds him back is himself believing," Calipari told The Courier-Journal's (Louisville, Ky.) Kyle Tucker. "We all look at him as a beast. There are things he does in practice and these guys stop and say, 'Do that in the game!'"
Lee had his one shining moment in the regional final against Michigan, yanking seven offensive rebounds and scoring 10 first-half points. He had scored a grand total of 13 points since Thanksgiving.
Least heralded but perhaps most impactful in March was less-heralded freshman Dominique Hawkins. He'd played 48 minutes since Jan. 11, a steep cut in workload for a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball.
He still didn't dent the stat sheet much in the NCAA tournament, but just ask Louisville's Russ Smith, Michigan's Nik Stauskas and Wisconsin's Ben Brust how important his play was. The three all struggled under his withering defensive attention.
Calipari could have made much more and much better use of his bench during the regular season, but perhaps the extended minutes for the reserves constituted another one of his cryptic "tweaks."
C Willie Cauley-Stein
Pictured: Willie Cauley-Stein hardly dressed for action in the national championship game. An ankle injury took him out early against Louisville in the Sweet 16, never to return.
The sophomore center was always a sporadic offensive presence, never quite stepping up to the levels he reached as a freshman, particularly the 10 PPG he averaged over the last 12 games of his rookie year. A six-game span in January produced only 14 points and one benching, as Cauley-Stein lost his starting job to freshman Dakari Johnson.
Defensively, though, Cauley-Stein remained a game-changer. He had only one game all season without a steal or block, leading the team in both categories. He swatted four or more shots in a game 12 times. Two of those came in the SEC tournament and another in UK's NCAA win over Kansas State. Again, none of those were games that he started.
Credit Cauley-Stein for remaining involved and motivated in the face of not only the benching, but his injury.
"He really wants to be playing right now, but at the same time, he's helping other guys," Johnson said at the Final Four, as reported by Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune. "He's engaged with the team."
The world's largest cheerleader couldn't get his team over the hump as readily as the team's most dangerous rim protector could, but his role in the run shouldn't be underplayed.
F Julius Randle
UK's offensive struggles during SEC play can be directly traced to Wooden Award finalist Julius Randle occasionally channeling the Invisible Man.
As written about in last month's assessment of the Wooden candidates, Randle got fewer shooting opportunities than the UK backcourt, despite being markedly more efficient with the chances that he did get.
When Randle did get involved, he was almost always dangerous. He topped 10 rebounds in 14 of his final 17 games and scored at least 10 in 15 of those games.
Unfortunately for the Cats, Randle's two weakest games came with major stakes. He tallied only four points and seven rebounds in the SEC title game against Florida, then put up only 10 and six against UConn. The Huskies ceased making Randle a primary defensive focus in the second half, using Niels Giffey to shadow him in a matchup that had no business being competitive.
Randle had a very good season in Lexington, but there remains a lurking suspicion that something was missing. The NBA will beckon soon and the national championship game will become a footnote, but right now, it's a black mark on a frequently sterling season.
G Andrew Harrison
When the NCAA tournament brackets came out, I spoke with Lexington radio host Matthew Laurance on my Back Iron podcast and asked him who the primary lightning rod was for fans underwhelmed by Kentucky's season.
Matthew did not hesitate in naming Andrew Harrison as a major culprit. With a close-up view of Harrison's issues with attitude and body language, the freshman guard embodied a lot of the usual complaints with AAU basketball culture.
Players unused to struggling against overmatched competition manage to raise their games without complaint every season and without acting exasperated or incredulous every time they commit a turnover or foul. Harrison struggled with such issues from day one, and the penny finally seemed to drop just before the SEC tournament.
A 20-point game against Wichita State made observers stand up and take notice, but how big could the Kansas State and Wichita wins have been if not for Harrison's six turnovers in each? He shot 28.8 percent combined over the five tourney games aside from ending the Shockers' undefeated campaign.
Harrison did average five assists per game in the tournament, including seven—against two turnovers—against the pesky Louisville defense. He ripped three steals against UConn. He impacted the game in other ways aside from trying to dent the rim with plentiful bricks.
Unfortunately, the national championship game also produced the struggle face pictured here. Old habits die hard.
F James Young
James Young carried a sniper's reputation into college. For most of the season, he struggled to live up to it.
Young was shooting 32.8 percent from three-point range heading into the regular-season finale against Florida. In the 10 games that would ultimately remain, he finally found a groove, as he made 18 of 40 from beyond the arc (45 percent).
Had Kentucky won the national title, Young would have made a very convincing case for Most Outstanding Player. He put up 37 points and 12 rebounds in the Cats' two games at JerryWorld, sinking 16 of 18 free throws while the rest of his team made only 12 of 27.
No matter whether or not his shots were falling this season, though—and more often than not, they weren't—Young was usually the unflappable presence contrasting with the emotionally volatile Harrison twins. If he goes pro and the Harrisons somehow decide to stay in Lexington, it's anyone's guess who'll provide the counterbalance next season.
G Aaron Harrison
Aaron Harrison's reputation didn't quite take the same beating that his brother's did, but both entered the NCAA tournament with very iffy draft stock following a turbulent regular season.
Lost in Harrison accomplishing the elusive triple Laettner with three straight game-winning buckets in the final seconds of tournament games is the fact that he struggled to produce inside the arc.
While he was hitting 48 percent of his three-pointers (24 of 50) during the SEC and NCAA tournaments—up from 30.6 percent in the regular season—he made only 42 percent of his twos. Those struggles included a two-of-15 skid during the Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin games, ones where his late-game derring-do overshadowed everything else.
Harrison was at least a more aggressive version of himself during the tournament, taking shots both open and contested where he had once passed up scoring chances. Remember that back in January, Harrison attempted only 34 shots over a five-game stretch of early SEC games (6.8 per game). Oddly, UK went 4-1 in that span with the only loss being the overtime defeat at Arkansas.
The last-second scores polished Harrison's legend to the point where he'll be long remembered as a Kentucky postseason icon. And he did play some of his best basketball in March. Like his brother, though, Aaron struggled under the weight of his reputation and bears some blame for a disappointing season.
When your team turns the simple phrase "40-0" into a cottage industry before it's even played a game together, anything short of perfection starts adding bricks to a wall of disappointment. A team whose recruiting rankings promised something akin to "The Harlem Globetrotters: The College Years" couldn't sustain the overbearing hype.
It's unfair to penalize the players for hype that they didn't create, but their coach needs to bear some of the criticism. John Calipari's public embracing of the unreasonable 40-0 grail and statements like "We don't play college basketball, we are college basketball" did nothing to quell the firestorm that his latest recruiting class walked into.
The fact that the team was finally able to become something close to the sum of its parts in March says a lot about the toughness of the recruits and Calipari's oft-discounted ability to find gifted players' motivational keys.
It took a while, but we finally started to see what each Wildkitten could accomplish. In the final tabulation, though, there was simply no way for the team to achieve what was expected of it.