A Kentucky basketball team that has become some kind of magnet for icy weather showed some ice water in its veins on Saturday at Missouri. And there was a lot to like about this performance:
Resiliency. This was UK’s first win in a game decided by five points or less and it came at a place where the home team had won 43 of its previous 45 games. The Cats couldn’t stop Mizzou guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson so they had to find a way to answer on the UK’s end and time and time again, they executed their offense.
Andrew Harrison. He played the quarterback role to perfection, with four assists and only one turnover. UK’s 1.25 points-per-possession was its best mark since December 21 and the seven turnovers matched the Cats’ lowest total of the season.
The zone. Assistant coach John Robic told me after the game that in his 18 years with Calipari, it’s the most zone that he’s ever seen his boss utilize. Calipari told reporters that he was having flashbacks to Elston Turner’s 40-point night from last season and a few possessions of the 2-3 zone late in the second half halted MU’s rally for a crucial couple of minutes. Kentucky separated from Mizzou in the first half when the zone confused the Tigers but remember that the Cats pushed the lead to 16 in the second half while playing man-to-man. UK is not going to suddenly turn into Syracuse when it comes to playing zone defense but it gives Calipari “another pitch” to use for a team that is struggling for now to defend at the level that his teams usually do. And having opponents have to spend time preparing for the Cats’ zone might just serve to help the M/M defense a little.
Randle is evolving. He had more assists (3) than turnovers (2) for just the sixth time this season and his stat line also included a blocked shot and three steals. Robic said they’re telling Randle to attack when he sees space among defenders and pass out when he doesn’t and Randle did that most of the day. The more he grasps the difference between when to “go” and when to “throw,” the harder he will become to guard. And that goes for the midrange jumper he hit in this game, too. I also loved that Randle asserted himself when his team needed him most, scoring six of eight points in a stretch that followed Missouri cutting UK’s 16-point lead to three.
Passion. I can remember three key instances in which a UK player (Dominique Hawkins, Jarrod Polson and Aaron Harrison) gave up his body to dive after a 50-50 ball and give UK the possession. That kind of play was glaring by its absence at LSU and it’s always been a hallmark of Calipari’s best teams.
I still believe Kentucky’s ability to make a Final Four run in March will depend on how much better the Wildcats can get on the defensive end of the court. And Willie Cauley-Stein’s ability to rediscover his best form is imperative to that improvement.
You could certainly make a case that this was a “must” win for Kentucky. I didn’t go along with that line of thinking because I’ve seen enough teams transform themselves later than this point in the season but there’s no denying that this was at least a very significant win, from the standpoint of Selection Sunday and getting in the best position (i.e. seeding) to make that run.
–listen to Tom each weekday morning at 9:06am eastern on “The Leach Report” radio network