We thought the Wildcats figured it all out at Auburn when they played a near-flawless game. We really did. Boy, were we wrong. Kentucky took a step backwards tonight against Alabama and the loss is yet another big strike on the Cats’ NCAA tournament resume. Fans better get comfortable riding this bubble because Kentucky will probably be on it all the way up until the field of 68 is announced.
Things were looking great for the first 20 minutes but, unbeknownst to Kentucky, Jimmy Naismith included a second half of play when he invented the game of basketball. That’s where things got ugly and Alabama turned a 33-24 halftime deficit into a 59-55 win. Elite teams come out of the locker with a 9-point lead and put it away immediately. Kentucky did the opposite by casually opening the door to the arena and inviting the Crimson Tide back into the game.
As much as I’d like to ignore it, I guess we should talk about it. Right? I mean, we don’t have to.
First and foremost, hats off to Kyle Wiltjer for another solid performance. Wiltjer said before the game that he’s putting in more work than he ever has before, and that commitment to improvement is generating results on the court. The sophomore forward came off the bench again tonight and provided a spark to the otherwise stagnant offense. He made three of Kentucky’s first six baskets and finished the first half with 11 points.
The second half was another story for Wiltjer, but not by choice. His touches were limited in the offense — we’ll get to that in a minute — when he should’ve been the go-to guy on every offensive possession. Kyle didn’t attempt a shot in the second half until there were a little over three minutes left in the game. Kentucky erratically forced the ball to the rim instead — again, we’ll get to that in a minute — while only putting up a grand total of nine points in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Nine points in 15 minutes, folks. Alabama came back and took a three-point lead during that span. Had the offense gone through Kyle Wiltjer, I think we’re in a better mood and looking at a completely different outcome.
It’s not all love for Wiltjer, though. He missed a crucial free throw, the front end of a one-and-one, when Kentucky trailed 51-50 with 1:20 to go. It was an uncharacteristic miss for Wiltjer, who we would normally want to see at the line in that similar situation.
Still, an all-around good game for the Big YMCA.
Unlike the other two Kentucky guards — we’ll get to that in a minute — Julius Mays played pretty well in the loss. He connected on four of his five three-point attempts for 12 points in the game. Mays and Wiltjer were the only two Kentucky players to reach double-figures in scoring.
I’m just going to start copying and pasting what we’ve been writing about Nerlens Noel after every game because we get the same thing from him night in and night out. Nerlens continues to give 150% on every possession while playing the best defense in America. His stat line tonight is just as impressive as it was last week and the week before; he tallied eight points, 13 rebounds, and seven blocks tonight. Nerlens’ seven blocks ties his career-high, a mark he’s reached five times this season and three out of the last four games. He reverted back a little bit late in the game by leaving his feet when he should’ve stayed grounded, but overall it was another Nerlens-like game from Nerlens.
It’s a shame he is on a six-loss basketball team because I think he’d be in consideration for some of the postseason accolades. Nerlens wants to win more than anyone else on the court and he deserves better than a .667 record.
Even the heartbreaking loss can’t take away from how amazing this photo from Chet White is:
“Do you mind if I make some fresh tea on your chin?”
Now, let’s talk problems with the backcourt. Calipari said Kentucky’s guard play was nowhere near Alabama’s guard play tonight. ”(Ryan Harrow) wasn’t there,” Cal said. ”It was a tough game for him.” Harrow and Archie Goodwin took 12 shots apiece, the most by any player in the game, and combined for only five made baskets. Harrow shot 3-for-12 and Goodwin went 2-for-12.
Calipari also expressed his disappointment with how the guards didn’t go inside to fight for rebounds like Alabama’s guards. He said the three offensive rebounds UK allowed in the final minutes are what killed them. “They played to win, we played not to lose,” he said.
In all your years of watching Kentucky basketball, can you think of a more frustrating player to watch than Archie Goodwin? I’m going to try to play nice because he’s giving it his all but… damn… pass the ball, Archie. The aforementioned 15-minute stretch when Kentucky couldn’t buy a basket falls heavily on Archie’s shoulders. For whatever reason, whether it be selfishness or severe tunnel vision, Archie insists on keeping the ball for himself when he has open teammates. His strategy of driving to the lane, blindly throwing it at the backboard, and hoping for a whistle is incredibly difficult to watch, especially on possessions when Kentucky needs to score. Again, I hate to pile it on him because he is playing hard and his intentions are good, but he has to start playing team basketball. This is not the University of Archie Goodwin, and, as good as he is, the University of Archie Goodwin wouldn’t win many basketball games. It was his worst outing of the season.
Which do you want first, the bad news or the good news on Alex Poythress? Bad news? Well, the bad news is he wasn’t a factor at all tonight. He fouled out with six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes of action. The good news is he’ll make a pretty reliable sixth or seventh man on Kentucky’s roster next season. I think any hope of Alex Poythress being a lottery pick is completely out the window at this point and it’d be in his best interest to return for a sophomore season. Like Calipari has said many times before, it’s just a slower process with Poythress. He’ll put it together, it just may not be as soon as we all hoped.
Congratulations to Trevor Lacey on the birth of two twin boys on the baseline in the second half. At first I thought he cramped up, and then I heard the painful squeals that could only come from someone in labor.
Tonight would’ve been a good night to have Willie Cauley-Stein, especially after those killer offensive rebounds Calipari spoke of. Alabama doesn’t get those putbacks if Willie is in the lane when Noel leaves to block a shot. Can he come back now? Please?
Keep your heads up, people. It’ll be fine. Cal still kind of, slightly likes his team.
We’ll have more from the game in the morning.
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Bill Keightley Report : Never to be forgotten.
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