I don’t know about you, but I woke up angry. To me, last night’s game was ten times more disappointing than the Arkansas loss. In Fayetteville, at least Kentucky showed some fight. Based on last night’s performance, it’s hard to see this team winning a National Championship. The Cats’ progression has been so erratic this season that, barring some major turn of events (perhaps a humiliating loss on the road), there’s no way they can string together six wins in the Tournament. Why? Here are five crucial traits that they just don’t have right now:
Last night, there was no teamwork. In fact, at times, this group doesn’t look like a team at all, just five guys taking turns trying to make plays, or even worse, waiting for someone else to. For some reason, despite their talent, this team just doesn’t fit well together. The dribble drive does not mesh with Julius Randle’s post game. Maybe that’s why the Cats sometimes look better with Randle on the bench. Yet, how long can Kentucky survive without Randle’s rebounding?
In addition, more often than not, James Young and the Harrisons think “shoot first” not “pass first.” That’s a problem, especially for Andrew. Here’s a sad statistic: Kentucky ranks 215th in the country in assists per game. Here’s how they’ve ranked in previous years under Cal:
No wonder our ball-handling is so bad.
It’s hard to have good teamwork if you don’t have chemistry. Yes, Camp Cal was great and they bonded, etc., but aside from some a gutsy comeback at Arkansas and a cushy win against Georgia, this team doesn’t show any emotion on the court. In Cal’s first three years at Kentucky, you could tell his teams loved playing together. The smiles, the dances, the goggles, the chest bumps; their energy was infectious. The past two years? Not so much. After each game, I go through the tape to find moments in which the team celebrates. I can come up with three moments off the top of my head: when Andrew hit the three to take the Arkansas game to overtime; the Alex Poythress layup-turned-dunk against Texas A&M, and the bench making the most of the cleanup minutes against Georgia. It says a lot that we have to search for these moments with this team.
We knew Willie Cauley-Stein had problems going against big post guys, but last night, Julius wilted too. You want to know this team’s Achilles Heel? A physical, 6’9” 235 lbs. forward. Willie and Julius simply can’t handle them. To his credit, Dakari holds his own in the post, and therefore has become Kentucky’s most reliable player in matchups against physical bigs. However, UK needs Willie’s defensive presence on the floor, and I’m not sure how much longer they can survive without it. Dakari is great, but doesn’t the hops Willie does to block shots. However, Dakari is the one player on UK’s team who makes intelligent decisions in the post, and, along with James Young, pretty much the only player who looked like he cared last night. #StartDakari
Leaders come in many forms. Some players are vocal leaders like John Wall, who instinctively know what their team needs to hear and don’t hesitate to take control. Some players lead by example, like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose toughness and relentless work ethic inspired his team to elevate their play. Some players, like Darius Miller, are veteran leaders who step up in clutch situations and help steady the ship.
Coming into this season, it looked like we had the leader problem solved. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress returned to school, vowing to right the wrongs from last season. Veteran leaders? Check. Cal hyped Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison as “alpha beasts” with the ever-important “will to win.” We’ve seen glimpses of that at times this season, but only individually. Neither has put the team on their back and led them to a big win like their predecessors. What happened to the alpha beasts? Like Rob Dauster said in his piece earlier today, the only leading by example we’ve seen from the twins is bad body language.
Maybe this team just doesn’t want it enough. It’s still not clear what happened in the last 13.5 seconds of the game, but if it wasn’t Cal’s decision not to foul, then what the heck happened? I went back and watched the replay today and James Young was the only player who gave more than a half-hearted attempt to foul, but it was too late. To me, that says they gave up.
So far, the “Revenge Tour” is a mockery of itself, in large part because teams aren’t scared of Kentucky anymore. Last year crumbled that Big Blue mental block in the SEC, and UK’s terrible starts just show how little teams are intimidated by the Cats these days. Teams don’t just want games more, they know they can win. At Arkansas, Kentucky responded to that fight; save a few players last night, they didn’t even bother to get off the mat.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist practically slept in the gym. Even when he comes back to Kentucky to visit, he never stops working. That work ethic spawned the Breakfast Club in 2012. Derek Willis’ late night shoot arounds at the Joe Craft Center started the Midnight Club, but so far, only Dominique Hawkins, Alex, and Willie have bought in (that we’ve heard of). As Matt pointed out on the radio, isn’t it a little odd that the rest of the starting five isn’t in the gym, too? Where is the competitive fire from them?
All this being said, I pray to God they come out and prove me wrong on Saturday.