November 14, 2013
There was a lot to take away from Kentucky's four-point loss to No. 2 Michigan State.
So much that I wanted to take a little bit of a deeper dive into the game, since it's (by far) the most meaningful 40 minutes of high-level basketball the Wildcats have played and will play, until December.
Here are 10 things, in no particular order, that I either liked or didn't like. Some involve the biggest and most glaring issues, good and bad. Some are perhaps a bit less overt. Anyway, here we go.
1) Like: Julius Randle, Julius Randle, Julius Randle
Where else can you start except here, with him? Randle continued his torrid (and record-setting) start to the season, despite a lackluster and timid first half. What was incredible was that, out of 14 shots, I really disliked only one (a jab-step/fadeaway from just inside the arc in the first half). Everything else was high-quality stuff, and he once again displayed silky moves darting in from the basket, bulldozer-like physicality in the post and polished back-to-the-basket moves, like this:
The scary thing, of course, is that Randle has room to get much more polished. Michigan State scouted him to perfection and, as Calipari predicted, sat on his spin move. Both guards digging down and post defenders guarding him jumped that move:
What I'll be watching for moving forward is if UK's offense stays this reliant on Randle. Coming into the season, I expected this team to be very balanced, a la the 2012 team, just because of how much talent was here. But Randle has quickly asserted himself as the primary option -- so much so that 12 percent of UK's points through three games are from Randle free throws.
2) Dislike: Pick-and-roll defense
Defense is the side of the ball with more concerns at this point. Part of that is natural, given that Calipari started working with the team later on it than offense. Guarding the pick-and-rolls, and lack of execution on that, can probably be chalked up to that factor. But it was still a bit disconcerting to see UK get beat consistently on simple pick-and-roll action, and here's why: they made mistakes in pretty much every way.
Some breakdowns came because the two players involved mixed up whether to switch or not; some came because the big man didn't hedge enough; some came because UK was trying to cheat through screens, like this one (watch Aaron Harrison lean into the screen and set his feet to move that direction):
Or this one, where Poythress gets caught cheating in the same way:
3) Like: Alex Poythress' effort
Poythress had shown significant, and critical, signs of improvement in UK's first two games. The fact that he showed the same toughness and effort against Michigan State is even better. He's honed in on exactly what his game should be, and it complements the rest of how this roster should end up looking very well.
He's also become a lot smarter and conscientious about chasing offensive rebounds. Watch him slide in from the perimeter, around two Spartans, to put himself in position for a put-back here:
4) Dislike: Andrew Harrison's decisions
A lot's been made of Andrew Harrison, and deservingly so. He's the star point guard on a top-five team. I think he'll be perfectly fine long term -- remember Marquis Teague and how long it took him -- but Tuesday showed us, and hopefully him, just what it takes to be a point guard at the highest level.
So many of his drive/shoot/pass decisions ended up being the wrong one. And that's to be expected, but I also thought he didn't show much of an ability to make an adjustment against a Michigan State defense that was clearly packing the paint and trying to take away penetration.
5) Like: James Young designed plays
John Calipari said Young was "pressing" in UK's first two games. Didn't look like it Tuesday, and it was telling that as the rest of his teammates drifted through the first half, Young was UK's only true offensive option.
He's also perhaps the best fit for one of Calipari's pet plays, where a ball handler sets up in the paint before running around a down screen on either side of the court. Young is especially well-suited for this task because he poses a dual threat coming off the screen: he can pull up for a 3-pointer or continue curling and drive. He showed both, as seen below:
6) Like and dislike: Willie Cauley-Stein's defense
It was Cauley-Stein who lost Brendan Dawson for the game-sealing putback. And he had the occasional lapse on defense, like this one, where he straight-up saunters, like a UK student crossing the street, to go help defend a pick-and-roll.
But this play also shows why I like Cauley-Stein: he has so much natural feel for help-side and off-ball defense. He can cover up not only his own mistakes but his teammates' a lot of times. He's as close to the Davis/Noel type of last-line defender this team has, and that's a large part of why UK's defense is allowing 0.92 points per possession when Cauley-Stein is in the game versus 1.00 when he's on the bench.
7) Like: Calipariiiiiii Calipari
Usually, Calipari's screaming, pointing and verbally harassing referees as far as he's allowed to take it. But after one call that he thought should have been a travel it looked like he was just done even trying.
8) Dislike: Transition defense
This goes along with pick-and-roll defense. Kentucky is young, hasn't worked much on this and was going against a team that was looking to push the ball at every opportunity. So I get that mistakes will happen and assignments will be missed.
But when you've got the numbers in your favor on defense, and it's off a set play, there's just no real excuse for it.
9) Like: Guard post-ups
It's a ploy Calipari's used about once per game this season. Makes sense when you've got guards standing 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6. Against Michigan State, he used a James Young post-up to facilitate a Julius Randle cut down the lane.
I'd honestly be perfectly fine with getting more post-ups for guards, especially when Cauley-Stein is in the game, since he's not much of a true post-up threat:
10) Dislike: Guards' perimeter defense
I've quickly pegged the Harrison twins as below-average defenders, especially off the ball. They gamble too frequently and at bad times; they get lost by following their ball as their man moves around the perimeter; and their defense on screens is inconsistent even when situations call for the same action.
And, from the looks of this play, their communication is, at the very least, lacking at times:
Ultimately,a game that showed that this Kentucky team is, in fact, just learning to play with each other (first half), and a game that showed why this Kentucky team is, in fact, still the national title favorite (second half).
We've got a long way to go. I can't wait to see how it develops from here.