After a big win in Auburn, I am settling in to my temporary home in Birmingham. While I try to figure out what’s happening in my brother’s movie of choice this evening, “Taken 2,” here are my ten takeaways from the weekend that was:
1. Cats “outplay” Auburn
Heading into last night’s game at Auburn, I’ll admit it: I was nervous. The Cats were without Willie Cauley-Stein in a hostile environment primed for an upset. Turns out all those nerves were for nothing. After an excruciating first half for both squads, the Cats put the pieces together and started clicking in the second. For the past month, Kentucky’s bread and butter–or rather, ketchup and mustard–was the Twin Towers lineup, and without Cauley-Stein, they were forced to shake things up. Thanks in part to an inspired performance by Kyle Wiltjer and an atrocious shooting night for the Tigers, the Cats were able to penetrate the lane and have their way with Auburn. Every player made a contribution, maybe the first time we’ve seen a true team effort from this group. Afterwards, Tony Barbee said he was surprised that his players were so intimidated by the Cats, who he said simply “outplayed” his squad. When was the last time we’ve said that about this Kentucky team?
2. Kyle Wiltjer steps up
As mentioned, Kyle Wiltjer’s contributions last night were downright crucial. It was Wiltjer’s second straight game in double figures, and more importantly, the second straight game he looked like the veteran leader the Cats need. Against Tennessee, Kyle asked Cal to draw up plays for him; against Auburn, he created plays for others. Kyle had five assists, two of which led to back-to-back dunks for Alex Poythress, who continues to baby step back to beast mode. Up until recently, Kyle was complacent in relying on his jumpshot, and if it wasn’t falling, he became a liability due to his lapses on defense. Calipari went as far to blast Kyle not once, but twice to the media for his lack of effort. Against Tennessee, Kyle “bought in” to the fact that to stay in the game, he had to diversify his offense. Now, in addition to an outside threat, the Cats have another weapon inside to not only score, but create plays.
3. Nerlens Noel’s tea is steeped
We’ve shown this to you a lot, but it never gets old. Can we please keep Nerlens? Please??
4. Jarrod Polson is not a joke
Jarrod Polson used to be the subject of Beiber jokes and “SHOOOOOOOT” chants. Now, he’s a valuable contributor on Kentucky’s bench. Last night, Polson scored six points, grabbed three rebounds, and proved white men can jump with a sky-high tip-in and an absolutely ridiculous block on Auburn’s Josh Wallace. Calipari has praised Polson’s hard work in practice, and said that his progression is one of his favorite things about this squad. The longer Willie is out, the more the Cats will look to Polson and Hood for productive minutes.
5. Willie may play on Tuesday
The timeline for Willie Cauley-Stein’s return remains indefinite. Cauley-Stein stayed in Lexington over the weekend to receive a double dose of treatment on an old knee injury that flared up after the Tennessee game. As a precautionary measure, the staff decided to go ahead and get it cleaned up and on Saturday, Calipari said that they haven’t ruled Willie out for Tuesday’s game against Alabama. Even in his absence, it was good to see the team come together and “whomp” up on an opponent on the road.
6. Auburn is beautiful
I’ll cover this more in “Behind Enemy Lines” tomorrow, but Auburn and its new arena are beautiful. The town of Auburn is an oasis in the middle of Nowhere, Alabama with a downtown right out of a Rockwell painting. Toomer’s Corner is somewhat depressing now that the infamous oak trees have been both poisoned and set on fire, but strips of toilet paper still cling to the tree like hope in the Auburn football fan base. Regardless, the loveliness of the campus is eclipsed by its arena, which is the nicest college facility I’ve ever seen (I have yet to visit the Chicken Bucket). It’s so nice that DeWayne Peevy told me that he and the staff studied it when they were planning the new Rupp Arena locker room. Now, if only their student section could learn a chant other than “Airball,” they’ll be set.
7. Charles Barkley says none of the Cats are ready for the NBA
One of the big stories coming out of the Auburn game was Charles Barkley’s comment that none of the current Kentucky players were ready to go to the NBA. The latest mock drafts have Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein all projected to go in the first round, a puzzling scenario when you consider some of their overall performances this season. With the talent level in college basketball down, teams will favor potential over performance. Combine that with a loaded 2013 class waiting in the wings and we will likely be saying goodbye to at least three Cats. Cauley-Stein’s injury may have him sticking around ’til next season, but I have to say, with the exception of Noel, I agree with Sir Charles.
8. Stoops keeps Stooping
On the football side of things, the Cats are wrapping up another big recruiting weekend. One of the top recruits on campus was Franklin County star Ryan Timmons, who told his Twitter followers that his visit was “good.” Timmons received an offer from Florida on Sunday night, and will visit Gainesville on February 1st. This week, he will entertain the Gators, Kentucky, Ohio State, Illinois and Missouri during in-home visits. In addition, the Cats are lining up even more high-profile visits, including Marquez White, a four-star cornerback committed to Florida State; James Hearns, a four-star linebacker committed to Florida; and Hearns’ teammate, four-star wide receiver Taj Williams. On Friday, Matt shared this picture of what the recruits visiting Kentucky receive upon arrival…any guesses as to what’s inside those envelopes?
9. UK Hoops rolls on
The most dominant basketball team in the state right now? UK Hoops, which laid a 97-53 beatdown on Auburn Sunday afternoon. Afterwards, Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy accused Matthew Mitchell’s squad of pressing late in the game despite the lopsided score, something which Mitchell took a bit of offense to:
“Yeah, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that. Listen, we work really hard to get ourselves into a position to play the way that we play. These kids are up at 5:30 in the morning, four days a week during the summer and lay it on the line. I am not going to really spend any time with that kind of comment. If anybody is unfamiliar with how we play and what our goals are, then that is their problem. That is not mine. I am really proud of our players and I thought they conducted themselves with tremendous poise today and followed the scouting report and beat a team that can give you a lot of trouble if you didn’t play well. I am really proud of our team.”
10. New road uniforms?
We’ll finish with what may be the Cats’ new road uniforms, which will debut at Florida on February 12th. Gonzaga’s version is pictured above. According to Nike, the uniforms will have a logo “inspired by each team’s home court” on the center of the jersey…does this mean the Cats will wear Dancing Guy across their chest? Or Rupp Arena soft serve? Big Bertha? (Please God, no…)
We’ve got a big week coming up. Get some rest.