This would look phenomenal on a t-shirt.
“The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Take that Rudyard Kipling quote, and replace “wolf” with “Wildcat,” and you’ve got a pretty good reason as to why this team is currently enjoying a 3-game win streak, and fighting for first in the SEC. Even just a couple weeks ago, Kentucky didn’t seem to know who they were as a unit, and really even as individual basketball players. Cal had toyed around with a “Twin Towers” idea with Willie and Nerlens, and we’ve seen more starting lineups than Kim Kardashian Cosmo covers this year, so it’s pretty safe to say that, unlike previous years, the team identity has been something of a struggle.
But in having to overcome some adversity, and responding with a solid three game home stretch, the Cats have started to show who they are just in time for the postseason.
It all starts with the guards.
Archie Goodwin has been somewhat frustrating all season, but Coach Cal, and hopefully fans, and possibly Archie himself, have accepted that there are going to be a couple bonehead errors a game. That’s just who he is right now. But in learning to play through the “two ‘Oh-my-God'” shots per game that Calipari gives him, he’s becoming an efficient offensive option. In the last three games, Goodwin is shooting right at 50% (18-36), and has done much better with three-point shooting than he has all season (42.8% in win streak, compared to 27% for the season). Archie has become a guy who might make a mistake, but can now play through them.
Ryan Harrow is letting off the “scoring point guard” mentality, and becoming a distributor that also has to be guarded. In the Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Mississippi State games, Harrow has a total of three turnovers. Not per game. Just three. Pair that with fourteen assists and you’ve got exactly what this team needs. And when he’s passing the ball well, he’ll find that lanes open up, which have allowed him to put up 15.7 points per game in that same span.
Wrapping up the guards, Julius Mays has absolutely become the team’s leader. Not just on the court, where he’s averaged 14.7 points through the streak, but in the locker room, where he famously explained what motivated him. Say what you want about next year’s team, they’re going to miss Julius Mays.
Willie Cauley-Stein has learned that his identity isn’t “Nerlens Noel’s Backup,” but “Willie Cauley-Stein.” He’s put up great shots since the Wildcats started putting things together, making 17 of his 24 shots (71%). And while he isn’t the natural shot-blocker that Nerlens is, he’s still averaged over four rejections a game, making him one of the more dependable assets on both sides of the floor. He’s learning to slow down and be deliberate, and that not many people can match both his size and skill set.
Finally, Alex Poythress is learning that he’s a man. He’s doing everything just a little better, from scoring (14.7 ppg), to rebounding, to simply taking better shots (a ridiculous 18-30). He’s also taking better care of the ball, committing only one turnover in three games, compared to the 2+ turnovers per game that he’s averaged on the season.
So as the team’s identity begins to materialize, you have to think that it’s because each player is getting more comfortable with his role. Nobody’s trying to be they’re not, and the dividends are pretty obvious. As Cal says, they’re becoming their brothers’ keepers, and expanding their Wolfpack to include each other.
That just might be why they’re playing so well.