While most of you are understandably here to read about the goings on in Kentucky football and basketball (and notice which I put first after the weekend we just had), that does not mean that there are not other major sporting events going on worldwide. Specifically, today marks the beginning of the Australian Open tennis tournament, the first and often least noticed tennis major. Now you probably still care very little (if at all) about the Australian Open, and for that I completely understand. However for me and Drew Franklin, watching the Aussie Open is now officially on the agenda. As you may know, we are going to be covering the last three tennis majors for the Tennis Channel, and thus we have to begin keeping up with the tennis scene this week. While the Tennis Channel did hire us to basically bring our goofy blogging style to a different sport and in two cases, a different country, it is also probably important that we know more about tennis than most casual sports fans, who generally know only Roger Federer, the Williams Sisters and that Spanish guy with the big muscles (his name is Rafael Nadal). Thus our research begins. Since the retirement of Andy Roddick and the injury to John Isner (he is the big tall guy who played at Georgia and had that 500 game match with Nicolas Mahut), this is the first major in the modern era (since 1968) in which an American is not seeded in the top 16. Thus learning about these foreign superstars is now the job of the KSR crew. So join us if you wish, turn on the Australian Open, find the Tennis Channel (chances are you might have it) and get ready for a return to your childhood love of tennis. We will all need it when we take off for Paris in May.
To the weekend in UK sports, which for some reason reminds me of this picture:
You don’t need me to tell you that the game in Lexington was a terrible loss for Kentucky. While the performance of Elston Turner was one that will go in the history books, watching it take place against the Cats in a loss, is not something that any of us wanted to see. It officially puts Kentucky on the bubble and makes it imperative that UK slip up no more in against the weaker half of the already horrendous SEC. But while many of us have been trying to figure out what Kentucky will need to do to get a good seed, or even get in, the tournament, more fundamental questions also exists. Mainly, is Kentucky really even any good? I think the answer to that question is yes…I do believe the Cats aren’t as bad as a couple of performances and their record suggest. But the reality is that the Cats have five key deficiencies that either need to be fixed, or will make it very difficult to succeed.
1. A Perimeter Shutdown Defender
If I were to point to the biggest difference between this team and teams of the past three years, the inability to defend against perimeter scorers would be my selection. If one looks at the games Kentucky has lost at home (Baylor and Texas A&M), they were in large part due to the inability to stop a quick, outside scorer for exerting his will (Turner and Pierre Jackson). Similarly, in games where Kentucky played good teams close, the runs that did Kentucky in were often instigated by perimeter players scoring in spurts (Smith/Siva for Louisville and Curry/Solouman for Duke). The past three teams have had guys that you could put on a player that was getting hot and ensure he was taken out of the action for at least a few minutes. In Calipari’s first year, Deandre Liggins and Ramon Harris shared this role. In his second, Liggins was as good as any perimeter defender in American. And on the national championship team, when MKG decided to shut a player down, they were shut down. This team has no such player. Archie Goodwin gave a good attempt at it in the first 10 minutes of the second half on Saturday, but the problem for Kentucky is that when he takes that role, the most effective one-on-one scorer on the team sees his offense suffer…and Kentucky goes on scoring droughts. I am not sure this problem can be fixed…a person on the team with the length of Liggins/MKG just doesn’t exist. But Goodwin must get better and his teammates must score more to allow him to give the best effort he can.
2. Outside Shooting
This wasn’t supposed to be an issue. With Kyle Wiltjer being a knockdown shooter, supposedly one of the 5-7 best in America, three point shooting was expected to be a team strength. It hasn’t been. The two best shooters on the team, Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays, have been in long droughts, and without their outside shot, teams are clogging the paint, doubling on the post men and cutting off penetration lanes. Interestingly, some of the secondary shooters (Ryan Harrow and Alex Poythress) have been better than expected, but up to this point they have not received help from the two main outside threats. Mays hit a couple of big shots Saturday and shot very well early in the season. But Wiltjer has been a disappointment. In his first two SEC games, he has only scored two points, and in the last game he only took two shots. That has to change, and with the ability he and Mays both have, one would expect it still can.
3. Offside Rebounding
It is becoming difficult to watch as game after game, Kentucky is crushed on the offensive glass. Vanderbilt is one of the worst rebounding teams in America, yet they beat Kentucky to enough offensive rebounds to make a game in Nashville. Texas A&M got huge second chances are crucial possessions and converted those into buckets every time Kentucky threatened to take over the game. Most of the problems are occurring when UK’s shot blockers (specifically Noel) are extending to contest jumpers and the offside rebounder (usually Poythress, Wiltjer or Goodwin) do not rotate over and protect the off side. This leads to put back layups and momentum killers. If you watch Calipari on the sideline, it is usually these plays and these three players that cause him the most frustration. He knows that 30 seconds worth of great defense is lost in an instance when the Cats don’t stop easy putbacks with simple box outs. If this doesn’t change, the team’s biggest strength, strong half court defense, is totally negated.
4. Alex Poythress
It has been said by everyone and thus there is no need for me to pile on any more, but the biggest reason this team isn’t where it should be is Alex Poythress. He should be one of the five best scorers in America. His combination of strength, athleticism and surprising shooting touch should make him an unstoppable offensive force. Throw in his body and his leaping ability and he should pull 5-7 offensive rebounds a game. Instead, Poythress seems to spend most of his games with half-energy and marginal desire. He shows flashes of brilliance and there are moments where he cannot be stopped. But they are becoming fewer and farther between. If Poythress was where he should be, the Cats would be a top 10 team. But he isn’t…and as each game goes by, it becomes harder to see him reaching that stage.
5. A Big Possession One-on-One Scorer
We have taken for granted at Kentucky having an elite scorer who can get his own shot and make big points in big moments. Part of the reason is because we have had multiple such options on every team. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe could all, with the right matchup, score one-on-one in big moments. The same was true of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, MKG, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and others. When the game is in a key moment or the team needs a bucket to stop a run, there has to be some scorer who can do it and shut down a crowd or an opposing bench. How many times did we see Darius Miller clear out last year at a big moment, and hit a mid-range jumper to ensure the Cats were in a good position? It is not clear that player exists on this team. Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein dont have the ball handling ability, Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays the athleticism, Alex Poythress the desire or Archie Goodwin the patience to make the right decision and the big play. Recently the person who has taken that role has been Ryan Harrow and he has done it relatively well. But, thus far it has not been good enough to stop the massive scoring runs that have done UK in the last few games. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress were supposed to be those guys. They haven’t been. Until that changes, UK will struggle against every good team on its schedule.
So that is where we are on basketball. Kind of depressing isn’t it? But football had a much better weekend:
On the football side of things, the biggest recruiting weekend in UK history produced some very positive results. UK received three commitments along the way, all of whom picked the Cats over offers from a variety of high BCS programs. A quick run down:
LOVELL PETERSON: Peterson is a 3 star Defensive Tackle from Ohio who was one of Mark Stoops’ first targets upon arriving in Lexington. He picked Kentucky over offers from Illinois and West Virginia. Some recruiting folks tell me that he will take a bit of time to fully develop but that he has massive potential and a chance to clog up space on the line.
KYLE MEADOWS: I often judge a recruit by how mad opposing fan bases were to lose him. In the case of Kyle Meadows, the answer was VERY mad. Meadows is a high 3 star Offensive Lineman from Ohio who had offers from Florida State, West Virginia and Louisville. Bloggers from all three schools expressed disappointment at losing Meadows who could see time early for the Cats.
JAVESS BLUE: Blue may be the recruit who does the most the earliest, as the JUCO Wide Receiver could end up starting this next season. He had offers from a number of schools, including Texas A&M, Arizona State, West Virginia and Mississippi State. He is a big body and is already celebrating becoming a Cat on Twitter.
In addition to these players, a number of other big recruits made the trip and the early reports are that all had a good time. We will find out in the coming weeks how successful each of their recruitments truly was, but the one to watch is QB Asiantii Woulard. I am told that a number of the guys that came on campus are looking to see what this #1 rated dual-threat QB in America does to see if Kentucky is going to be able to reel in a big time player to anchor the recruiting class. If he picks Kentucky (he is visiting Clemson next weekend), watch out. Either way, Mark Stoops has brought a high level of energy to this program and is doing things in recruiting that I didn’t believe were possible. If he finishes like he has started with this class, it will be an amazing accomplishment and further proof that Kentucky got the right guy.
We will have more all day, including recaps from players on their recruiting visits. Until then, kudos to the UK student section for welcoming the Football and basketball recruits with signs and chants. The basketball team will get better folks and we will talk about it all week here and on the radio. Until then, get your tennis on. France awaits…
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Bill Keightley Report : Never to be forgotten.
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