We knew Saturday afternoon was going to be tough for the Wildcats. A raucous environment. On senior day. Four seniors in the starting lineup. A chance to go 18-0 in the SEC. The Florida Gators were anxious to send their seniors off with another win and to grab hold of that unblemished conference record.
In the first half, it looked as if the Wildcats were just as anxious to make that happen.
The Wildcats were hapless.
They were lost on defense. This may be the worst team at defending the pick-and-roll in the history of college hoops. Both Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley Stein are bad, but Dakari takes it to another level. If his man sets a screen up top, you might as well go ahead and assume free reign to the basket for a lob.
And it wasn’t just on pick-and-rolls. We saw James Young completely lose Will Yuguete after one pass. All he did was enter it in to Patric Young in the post. Then cut off the ball. No screens. No nothing. James Young turned his head and Yuguete was gone.
This is fundamental basketball and this is why the team is struggling so bad. Fundamentally, they aren’t there. We saw it in zone, too. Julius Randle is at the wing in the zone. Goes to defend the short corner for some reason and Florida knocked down a wide open three.
Offensively, it was an absolute struggle for the Cats, as it has been over the last week-and-a-half. There’s no flow. No nothing. If not for the two Young three pointers at the onset, this thing would have gotten ugly even faster.
And we all saw it coming. When they were down seven early in the first half, I said on twitter, “I know it’s only seven right now, but this just has the look that it may get ugly.
And it did. The first half was the case of a really good team versus a really bad team. On one end a team scored at will. On the other end, it was nearly impossible.
Not a good formula for the Wildcats and that is why they went into the locker room down 49-28.
And I’ll be honest, I thought they were done. I mean, they were done. There really wasn’t any coming back from 21 down. But, I literally thought they were done. I thought they might get blown out by 50. I thought they may come out with zero effort. Not care. I thought they might quit.
They didn’t quit. And despite not being able to get the win, Kentucky’s effort in the second half gives UK fans a glimmer of hope. Something we have seen very little of, of late.
There was effort. Defensively, they played as a unit. They got stops. And because they got stops, they got some easy buckets in transition. When a team struggles to score as much and Kentucky does, easy buckets are a hot commodity and that all happens on the defensive end.
They made a concerted effort to get the ball in the block. Whether it be Dakari or Randle. Florida stopped doubling Randle and Randle took advantage. When Randle cramped at the low-point of the game in the first half, you wondered if he was just going to call it a day. He did quite the opposite en route to 16 points and 10 rebounds. Because of their focus on getting it into the post, they were able to get better shots at the wing.
The Wildcats shot like 8-of-a-million in the first half. They made five of their first six and eight of their first 12 to start the second half. Dakari made a jumper with just over 12 to go to cut it to 53-47. Kentucky outscored Florida 19-4 to start the half.
Then Scottie Wilbekin did what SEC Players of the Years do. After a timeout by Billy Donovan, the senior point guard drained a three to push the lead back to nine. Then Alex Poythress took a bad three at the top of the shot clock. Kentucky would never get it to six again.
They did get the ball down 58-50 at one point, but much like Poythress did after the Wilbekin three, Young took a quick, ill-advised shot.
In his post game presser, John Calipari said that is what freshmen do. I’m sick of it. Not all freshmen take ill-advised shots. Plus, the first ill-advised shot was from a sophomore. It’s time to quit blaming this season on the fact that they’re freshmen. Plus, we are in March. At this point in the year, these guys have played enough games for that not to be an excuse.
This Florida team is really good and despite Kentucky’s strong effort in the second half, they only outscored the Gators by two in the second frame.
Bottom line is you can’t spot a team that good 20 points in a half and expect to win. But, if you are looking for positives, and at this point you are begging for any positive you can think of, it’s that for the most part of the first game against Florida, Kentucky was right there. On Saturday afternoon, they were awful for the first 20 minutes, but in the second half they played right with the Gators.
To me, this all boils down to defending. If they can defend as a unit, they can win games. But, we need to see more than this small sample than we saw in the loss to Florida. To make a run in the SEC Tournament and then the Big Dance, they have to defend for 40 minutes. And that’s something we have hardly seen any of.
But, maybe they can feed off of their second half effort.
Yeah, the season didn’t go as planned. But, now the Kentucky Wildcats turn the page as we enter tournament play. Will we see the Cats that we saw in first half? If so, it could be a quick exit in Atlanta and then in the NCAA Tournament. But, if they can play like they did in the second half…who knows?