Today is February 17th. In one month, the Cats will play in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Tell me, is that one month comforting or terrifying to you? I haven’t decided.
Around tournament time, there is a lot of talk about “identity” and what it means in the postseason. Does this Kentucky team have an identity yet? Maybe, but I’m not so sure I like it. Let’s take a look at their distinguishing characteristics:
1) Poor play on the road (duh)
The Cats’ 1-5 SEC road record is pretty abysmal and telling of the team’s weaknesses. However, even though an “L” will always be an “L” (right, Loserville fans?), part of me wants to argue that the Cats are showing some signs of improvement. At Vandy, they managed to put together 35 minutes worth of decent basketball before their inevitable “5 minutes left” freak out (more on that later). And finally, after four passes of hot potato in the final few minutes, not one, but two Cats stepped up to make plays (Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones). Granted, they weren’t the prettiest or most well-thought-out plays, but the effort at the end saved me from leaving the arena totally depressed.
2) Brandon leads best
Get this man a white horse! If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team lately, it’s that we play best when Knight steps up. In the second half against Mississippi State, Knight led the Kentucky charge, scoring 11 of the team’s 21 points and assisting on eight more. As Jimmy Dykes reminded us several times on Tuesday, Knight is smart (I’d take his iambic pentameter over C.J. Leslie’s any day) and I’ll be honest, watching him call plays and communicate with his teammates is a comforting sight these days.
3) Doron needs defense
It’s no secret that Cal has been frustrated with Doron Lamb lately for his lack of effort on defense. It was good to see Lamb step it up on both sides of the court vs. Mississippi State. As a team that runs on the slender side, Kentucky will need every quality minute it can get from Lamb—on both sides of the ball. If it helps, Doron, I hear they’ve been making fun of your pedicure.
4) DeAndre is the glue guy
I hate using sports clichés, but “glue guy” is pretty hard to resist when it comes to DeAndre Liggins. This team needs a veteran presence to steady the ship when the going gets tough—I think Liggins is that guy. He energizes the team through defense, and is beginning to bring that same intensity to his offensive game, driving the lane and searching for shots. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of the reasons the Cats struggled at times vs. Mississippi State was that Liggins had an off night. I blame the SkyCam.
5) The “Five minutes left” freak out
This team needs a lesson on how to finish (no thanks, Rick). Against Mississippi State, they exposed several weaknesses in the last few minutes of the game, including getting the ball inbounds, poor shot selection, and sloppy turnovers. Did anyone else see these as big red flags?
The way I see it, this team is in the latter part of its angsty teen phase: full of promise, but prone to stubbornness and mood swings. The big question heading into this weekend (and more importantly, at Arkansas on Wednesday) is, do they build on the positives from the last few games or wallow in their weaknesses?