Photo © Mark Zerof
Kentucky got off to another slow start this afternoon, but rallied behind Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison to put away sharp-shooting Belmont, 83-70. Here are nine takeaways from the Cats’ come-from-behind win:
1. Randle the reliable
After a few bad games, Julius Randle was back to his ole reliable self this afternoon, scoring a career-high 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for his ninth double-double this season. When Kentucky’s offense stalled in the first half, they started going to Randle, who overpowered Belmont in the post. As it was earlier in the season, going to Randle in the middle means points. Even though he was often double and tripled-teamed, Randle fought through and finished, showing more aggression than he has in weeks. Granted, Belmont’s bigs are hardly James McAdoo, but it was good to see Randle assert himself as the dominant player we know he can be.
After the game, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd called Randle the difference in the game, telling reporters “We couldn’t stop him from making it. He’s so strong that our guys fouled him and he didn’t even notice.”
2. Aaron takes control
We’ve heard that Aaron Harrison is taking ownership of this team in practice, and that leadership carried over into today’s game. Aaron finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, and even more, was confident and assertive, driving the lane with force. Cal said that at times, Aaron is UK’s best player, joking that because he’s 12 minutes older than Andrew, he’s more mature. He looked it today.
3. Body language is a work-in-progress
One of the biggest complaints about this young team has been body language. They’ve been focusing on it during practice, with Cal teaching the guys how to huddle at the free throw line and greet each other after substitutions. Those seem like fundamental things, but they go a long way in improving team chemistry. One of the worst offenders has been Andrew Harrison, whose trademark move after a bad call or play is to put his hands over his head and frown. Andrew did a lot of that today, but his teammates didn’t let him get away with it for long. Jeff Drummond pointed out that in the second half when Andrew picked up his fourth foul, he immediately put his hands on his head, to which Randle shouted “Dude, body language!” at him. Randle did the exact same pose as Andrew later on after he got his fourth foul, but I like how the players are holding each other accountable. Andrew rallied and ended the game well, and after a particularly impressive drive, Randle leapt off the bench to greet him on the court. More of that, please.
4. There was a T-shirt cannon
Maybe someone in the UK Athletics is listening. After we clammored for improvement to the gameday atmosphere, a t-shirt cannon made an appearance in Rupp, helping a Big Blue Santa deliver some gifts during halftime. Sure, the gun looked a little homemade and slightly dangerous, but we’re not complaining. It worked, too; the crowd was excellent in Rupp this afternoon.
5. Jarrod and Dominique came off the bench to teach some valuable lessons
Cal has preached all year that his bench is his best teaching tool. He finally put the bench to use today, putting in Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins in the latter part of the first half, which gave the Cats some much-needed spark on both sides of the court. Hawkins is the best on-the-ball defender the Cats have, scrapping and fighting for every possession, which Calipari recognized after the game, telling reporters Dominique “gets everything he can out of his body. It’s incredible.”
While everyone can learn from Dominique’s hustle, the most important lesson may be the one Andrew Harrison learns from Jarrod Polson. Polson came in when Andrew got two fouls in the first half and immediately steadied the team. In fact, Polson did so well that Cal made Andrew sit next to him on the bench and talked him through everything Polson did. “[Andrew] can do everything Jarrod did, but at a higher level,” Cal said. Andrew had plenty of time to watch and learn; Jarrod played a season-high 21 minutes today.
“We had to go to Jarrod and Dominique to get the energy we needed to in the game. You know and I know it,” Cal said, adding that he wants to use the bench to energize, not punish. “What I want is a high-energy game. And you stick those guys in and they raise it even more and they sustain it until we can get guys back in.”
6. For this team to succeed, Andrew must improve
After today, I don’t think anyone would argue with Cal when he says that this team’s progress starts with Andrew:
“We have to get better. Andrew has to get better. He’s gotta have a better understanding of what we want and then do it,” Cal said. “At the end of the day, I want Andrew to be the best point guard in the country, I don’t want there to be any question. Right now, most games, he’s not the best point guard on the court. We just have to get it changed. He has the talent, he has the ability, he has the mindset, I’ve just gotta keep working with him.”
To Andrew’s credit, he put his head up and finished the game well.
7. With their point guard back, Belmont is dangerous
In a bit of a surprise, Belmont’s point guard Reece Chamberlain returned to the starting lineup this afternoon after missing five straight games with a foot injury. With him, the Bruins looked much more like the team that beat UNC than the one that lost to Denver earlier in the week. True to form, Belmont shot early and often from the 3-point line, hitting 11-30 threes, although it sure felt like a whole lot more at times. Rick Byrd’s team didn’t have an answer for Julius Randle in the middle, but they will be a dangerous first round opponent if they make it into the tournament.
8. Alex roared some more
Alex followed up a promising performance in Chapel Hill and a good week in practice with another good game. Calipari was pleased with his effort afterwards:
“He’s playing with energy. He’s playing and sustaining it, which he’s never done. He’s talking more. He’s playing smarter. He’s making easy plays. He could be a difference maker and needs to be a difference maker and should be a difference maker for this team.”
Willie also played well, showing off a budding touch around the basket, finishing with 16 points and seven rebounds.
9. Like it or not, it’s about to get real
While Kentucky was able to get away with a slow start this afternoon, Louisville is a much more formidable foe whose guards will capitalize on every mistake the Cats make. Right Cal?
“The challenge, let me tell you the one thing with [Louisville], they play extremely hard, way harder than we’ve played, like way harder. And again, they’re a Final Four, national championship team this year–those guys are back. They know how hard to play; they’re not rattled late, all the things that this team is still learning about.”