Not too long ago, I wrote an article about how Kentucky was shaping up to be an NIT team. At the time, it was a perfectly legitimate argument. The Wildcats had just lost on their home court to a mediocre Texas A&M team and were a measly 0-4 against teams in the RPI top 50. Their team was, in a word, dysfunctional, going through the growing pains that come with playing several freshmen. That’s how John Calipari’s teams were built—on talented freshmen, and up until then, it had been like clockwork. No one had ever questioned it, because it didn’t need to be questioned, we were used to seeing frosh studs like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins do the unimaginable. But this season the freshman under Calipari had been inconsistent and there wasn’t enough experience to balance it out. As the losses began to pile up, so did the doubt for Kentucky.
However, as quickly as the doubt came, it is beginning to fade. Since I wrote that article, Kentucky has gone 5-1, and picked up their best win of the season along the way—a road win at Mississippi. They then went and beat the same Texas A&M team they lost to on the road, in overtime. Three weeks ago, the Wildcats lacked the mental fortitude to win either of those games. They likely would have folded to the pressure of a raucous environment on the road. But they didn’t.
Clearly, this team is starting to get it. The pieces are starting to align and they are beginning to reach the apex of their potential. They are finding their groove. Part of the reason they find themselves in the midst of a three-way tie for second place in the SEC. The freshmen are maturing, the few veterans are emerging, and most importantly, the ‘Cats are winning. Still, they aren’t quite there yet, and there have been slip ups, like the Alabama loss, but they are improving.
It’s not a matter of individual talent, no question Kentucky is one of the most talented teams in the nation, but of working together as a cohesive unit. That’s what makes a good basketball team, a bunch of gifted individuals who know their roles. Weeks ago the roles of the Kentucky players were somewhat ambiguous to them, now the fog is starting to rise and things are becoming clearer for the players.
This year’s team is winning using the usual combination of freshman talent and battle-tested vets to get back on track. 2010-11 it was Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins, last year it was Darius Miller, this year, its Julius Mays. The transplant from Wright State is quickly becoming a key component.
A three point specialist, Mays is the oldest on the squad, and is adjusting to a leadership role amongst his younger teammates. In the Wildcat’s latest triumph, Mays’ value to his team became visibly evident. He scored 19 points on 4-6 from long range, and made several free throws down the stretch to key the victory. It’s not just scoring though, Mays was also key to the victory over Ole Miss despite scoring only five points. Firstly, those points came in a stretch where UK was pulling away with the lead, Mays played a critical role in that run. Secondly, he also had seven rebounds and four assists, he was active in retrieving loose balls and, realizing it wasn’t his day, getting teammates involved. That’s what smart players do; find ways to help the team win and that’s what Mays’ role as a senior is.
In a similar role off the bench is Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer may lack the age of Mays, but he makes up for it in postseason experience. Only a sophomore, Wiltjer is the lone remaining player with a major role in this year’s rotation that played on last year’s championship squad. Along with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague, he experienced the freshmen growing pains, and also the reward of winning a national title. This year coming off the bench, he has been a major part of the Wildcats gameplan. Wiltjer is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, standing 6-foot-10 and weighing 240 pounds, as if his physical stature weren’t intimidating enough, he can shoot from distance—and make them. Wiltjer is shooting 41% from beyond the arc this season, in the Ole Miss win, he was 5-12 from downtown and scored 26 points. He knows exactly what his job on the team is, to provide a spark off of the bench. Having him and Nerlens Noel in the game at the same time is tricky for defenses too. If you try to guard the post, Wiltjer burns you from outside, but if you step out on Wiltjer, there’s a Noel dunk waiting to happen in the paint. Wiltjer, combined with Mays provides the experience that is necessary for young teams to be successful.
Then there are the freshmen that have become the staple of the Kentucky brand. Like most freshmen, they’ve had their ups and their downs, but unlike most freshmen, they are doing it in the national spotlight and as the leaders of their teams. Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, and Noel make up the nucleus of the Kentucky squad. They are the three best players on the team. We’ll group Ryan Harrow with them as well since he’s a first year Wildcat also playing a big role. All came in with minimal to no college experience, and were thrust into major parts. Everybody expected greatness again, because Calipari had spoiled them with it over the years, but really they were setting unrealistic expectations for 19 year old kids who still had some developing to do. No doubt they could get there; the pace just might be a little slower than anticipated. Finally, they’re filling their roles. Goodwin and Poythress will be the quick athletic scorers and Noel will be the defensive anchor and get rebounds, occasionally scoring as a bonus. Harrow will run it all.
Really, they knew this from the beginning but it is only now coming to fruition. Now that the freshmen are really starting to adapt to the pace and the physicality of the college game, Kentucky is starting to look like Kentucky again. In fact, Noel is stepping into an Anthony Davis-like role on this team, in terms of value to the team and shot blocking abilities, only Noel is an even better shot blocker than Davis. It’s really not that difficult to see, after Noel’s 12-block performance against Mississippi, which set a school record, it should be pretty apparent. In case you need more though: through 21 games last season Davis blocked 94 shots, through 21 this season Noel has blocked 96. Noel is actually on pace to break the record Davis set last year for most blocks in a season. The only thing he isn’t that Davis was is a reliable scorer. Still, he does have outbursts now and then, and hit a season-high 19 points against A&M.
Besides, Kentucky has a surfeit of offensive threats around Noel to make things work. They did all along; it was just a matter of knowing the roles and a little bit of maturing on part of the freshmen. Now that they have, they are on pace for another solid season. The Wildcats and their newfound sense of team unity, will be on display Tuesday evening when they challenge South Carolina.
Oh and as for making the tourney, the Wildcats look to be fine there. The win versus Mississippi propelled them back in the race, and with the way the team is starting to come together more wins of this caliber should be expected. In a little over a month, we will be filling out brackets and Kentucky will be somewhere on them. That’s just how it works. Wildcat basketball is back, although, it never really left, it just had a little growing to do.
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