Finally, the finish we’ve all been waiting for. After flirting with disaster for most of the game, the Cats finally put their big boy pants on and finished the Vols, 75-65. Let’s break it down:
— This was a must-win game for the Cats, who have been the talk of the country this week because of their recent slips and newly minted “bubble team” status. It wasn’t always pretty, and at times you wanted to pull your hair out from frustration, but for once, the Cats toughed it out. Is that the identity the Cats are beginning to take on? “Look, folks. We are what we are. I love this team. We have so much upside. We’re going to be in dogfights.” That’s how big tonight’s win was, guys…it moved Cal from “liking” to “loving” his team.
— I don’t think anyone would argue that the MVP of this squad is Nerlens Noel. For the second game in a row, Nerlens turned in an outstanding performance, with 12 points, nine rebounds, two assists, six blocked shots and four steals. I’m pretty sure he even wiped the drool from that little girl behind the bench’s mouth while he was at it. Nerlens does it all, most of which doesn’t even make the stat line. Unbelievably, Nerlens didn’t score a single point in the first half, but came out roaring in the second, setting the tone defensively and hustling on every play. We’ve mentioned it a lot, but Nerlens leads the team in steals, and is on pace to rack up 85 this season, along with 120 blocks. More importantly, he is often the catalyst for the team’s best plays, knocking balls from defenders to his teammates, who can capitalize on numbers and score. He is well on his way to becoming a leader, putting the team on his back at several points tonight. Calipari agrees, chalking much of that up to Nerlens’ hard work during Camp Cal: “He’s beginning to [become a leader] and that’s what we need from him. But the reason he can do it is he’s been really working in practice.”
— Let’s all stand up and give a hand to Kyle Wiltjer, who bounced back after one of the worst games of his career to lead the team in scoring with 17 points. Wiltjer was the Subway Sub of the Game and more, helping the Cats to a quick start with five fast points off the bench. Wiltjer was 6-10 from the field and 2-6 from behind the arc, but most encouraging was his aggression, particularly late in the second half, when he scored four straight points, blocked a shot and then grabbed a rebound. Kyle’s renewed aggression didn’t go unnoticed by either coach. Cuonzo Martin said that his team prepared for Kyle as a perimeter shooter, which made his moves to the inside in the second half even more dangerous. Calipari was downright giddy with Kyle’s attitude and performance: “For the first time since he’s been here, Kyle told me to run a play for him. And I absolutely did.”
— The biggest smile in the building tonight belonged to Julius Mays, who finally hit the big shots the team needs him to hit. With five minutes left, Mays sank back-to-back threes to put the Cats up by six, a lead they kept the rest of the game. Those threes may be what saves Kentucky’s season, and gave Mays a much-needed confidence boost.
— Although they put together a good finish, this team still lacks consistency. For a long stretch in the second half, for each big stride they would make, they’d follow it with a dumb foul or defensive breakdown. I think one live blogger put it best: this is why this team can’t have nice things. Raise your hand if you felt like this at one point tonight:
It’s a problem that Cal says is becoming this team’s trademark: “In the last seven or eight years, I’ve had teams that have absolutely whomped on people. And this ain’t one of ‘em. I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody.”
— Some, including Cal, have questioned the cajones on this squad. So far this season, this group has been milder than a “Downton Abby” watch party. All week, Cal has been trying to light a fire under his guys, challenging them with Jarnell Stokes’ quote about winning in Rupp Arena and literally demonstrating how he wants Alex Poythress to react after a big play against Texas A&M. Tonight’s game was chippier than most, something that Cal welcomed: “If I see someone talking to one of my players and they’re not challenging back, I’m not happy. You gotta be a man.”
Right, Noel? “We’ve just got to really start to develop that killer mentality. If they step in this arena, we’re not giving them anything easy.”
— Basically, it’s time for the Cats to stand in the mirror and say this:
— And then there was the frustrating play of “Arghchie” Goodwin. At times, Goodwin is unstoppable, driving the lane with moves that will keep him in the NBA for years to come. At other times, Goodwin is literally unstoppable, meaning that he flies at the basket with no plan and no control. You can’t say Archie isn’t giving effort–by nature, he is a playmaker who still battles the high school urge to make a play himself even if there isn’t one to be made–but for him to mature into the player he can be, he has to step back and examine his options before taking it to the rim. When he does that, the results are great, like when he dished the ball to Julius Mays late in the second half for a three. Unfortunately, the familiar refrain of “PASS THE BALL ARCHIE” continued tonight, along with the new “DON’T GET FOULED ARCHIE.” Archie fouled out with 3:49 left, which is precisely when the Cats went on a 11-6 run. It sounds absurd to say, but the Cats looked more fluid with Archie off the floor late in the game, but you can’t afford to keep a weapon like him on the bench for long.
— Alex Poythress continued to baby step his way to beast mode tonight, finishing with ten points and eight rebounds. He showed a lot of hustle at the beginning of the game, diving after balls and sinking some truly beautiful threes. (His three may be my favorite shot on this entire team.) While that is encouraging, the next step for Alex is bringing that intensity to his offense. Diving for balls is great, but driving for dunks is even better.
— Thankfully, Jarnell Stokes and his giant clown feet were largely a non-factor in the game due to foul trouble. Jarnell, better luck at beating the Cats in Rupp Arena next ye–yeaaaaah, not gonna happen.
Now, the Cats hit the road for back-to-back road games at Auburn and Alabama. Let’s hope they bring this new attitude with them.
P.S. Go Wisconsin!