We are three games into a long season, and the Cats have shown a lot of progress in a very short time together. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and once Calipari gets his team firing on all cylinders, everyone knows this squad will be deadly — though they could certainly beat most teams at half strength.
Here are a few things to watch for going into the next couple of low-profile games before things heat up again against Notre Dame and Baylor. How will the team continue to respond from the loss to Duke? If it was anything like it was against Lafayette that traditional “refuse to lose” attitude is already in place in the mentality of this team.
— Assist-to-turnover ratio
The Cats run and gun style lends itself to a greater chance of turning the ball over. That is a fact that has faced Kentucky since John Calipari first became head coach. A higher-than-normal turnover rate isn’t cause for concern, but you can look at the numbers and take solace in the fact that things are only going to get better. At this time last season the “more experienced” 2011 Wildcats boasted a 1.50 assist/turnover ratio against an arguably a weaker first three opponents than this season’s team (Marist, Kansas, Penn State) with 38 total turnovers. Now these 2012 Wildcats have a 1.33 assist/turnover ratio, after facing the likes of a stingy Maryland and a very solid Duke team, with only 36 total turnovers.
One thing we can be sure of is that the turnovers will decrease as the team gets more comfortable and a true point guard takes the reigns of the offense. But this team really is not any worse off than the National Championship team was at the same time last year in terms of controlling the ball. That 2011 team finished the season with an assist/turnover ratio of 1.17, so these Cats are right where they should be.
— Shooting percentage
Kyle Wiltjer, Alex Poythress and the rest of the Wildcats can hardly miss. The team is shooting almost 53% from the field, the 14th best mark in the country. The outside shooting game from Wiltjer (12-of-19 from three) and Archie Goodwin (4-of-6 from three) will likely go down, if only slightly, but the scoring rates across the board should remain high. Kentucky will continue to rely on the inside scoring game of Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress who have a combined 62% shooting percentage so far. Much in the same way Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were used last season, Noel and Poythress are the lob-master and the slash-master for this team. Those guys can get buckets, and the guards on this team will continue to feed them the ball for high percentage shots.
— Defensive hustle
This is a hard one to judge because the Cats were mauled so badly on the boards against Maryland that the numbers will remain skewed for a while. The defensive hustle must increase if this team wants to be able to put teams away. They currently ranked 253rd in the country in defensive rebounds with 33 per game. With guys like Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein on the floor, it’s hard to imagine that number can look so awful. Noel is making an impact in many phases of the game, including steals (10), blocks (7), and minimizing turnovers (3), but one area that they Cats need him to be the best is rebounding the basketball and limiting team’s second-chance opportunities. Noel has a team-leading 24 boards, good for eight per game. That number should skyrocket over the next couple of games.
— Emergence of Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson, Ryan Harrow working out of the dog house
The senior leader on the team has been quietly going about his business — likely doing even more off the court that on it. Mays is averaging almost 33 minutes per game, second most on the team behind Archie Goodwin. And while he has only scored 19 points, Calipari obviously sees the value of having him on the court as a true floor general. Mays is new to the system — just like the freshmen are. Look for him to begin to find a groove in Calipari’s system and start contributing to the stat column, in addition to his moral support.
Jarrod Polson has been a shocking surprise to us all. He has played in all three games thus far and contributed significant and meaningful minutes. In that sense, he has been the team’s sixth man over Willie Cauley-Stein. Once Ryan Harrow is back to 100 percent the rotation will be scrambled, but Polson has shown he can play with the big boys, and deserves to be more than a victory cigar in garbage time.
Speaking of Harrow, the mysterious illness that has kept him from traveling and practicing with the team may have finally worn off — but he has a lot of work to do to get back. Calipari said Harrow is the “low man on the totem pole” right now. So if he wants to be Calipari’s starting point guard, he had better bust his butt and earn it.