It’s been a rough few months since the last time we saw Kentucky basketball take the court.
The hype that came with a new Commonwealth Stadium was exciting, kicking off a roller coaster football season. During the first half of the season, the Cats were 4-2 with every single game causing heartache, coming down to the final possession each time with every game decided by 8 points or less. The heartache has turned brutal during an abysmal second half losing streak. The fans had gone seven months without something worth getting extremely excited for, until last night.
Normally I stick to writing about football, but the last 36 hours have been too amazing.
Surprising, Astronomical Recruiting Success
It was going to be another above average Fall of basketball recruiting, with De’Aaron Fox as the centerpiece to build around. Nobody thought in less than a week one of Cal’s Best Classes would be solidified. Cal stole not one, but two 5-star recruits. Bam Adebayo was considered an NC State lock for most of his recruitment, until things changed late Monday night. After getting the monster power forward, the possibility of getting the country’s best shooting guard, Malik Monk, was on the table, but I don’t know if anyone thought he would spurn Arkansas for UK so quickly.
You don’t want to get too excited about next year’s team when this team is just getting started, but it’s fun to look ahead at what the Cats have in store for the future.
The Resiliency of Alex Poythress
Alex Poythress has been an enigma during his career at Kentucky. A guy projected to be the #1 overall pick at one point during his freshman season has never seemed comfortable on the court. Right when he was starting to find his niche on last year’s team, an ACL injury gave him an early exit. Everybody wanted to see Alex back to normal this year, but our expectations have been hesitant.
During the first half, Alex failed to finish some tough buckets inside. “Here we go again,” probably went through the minds of many, but Alex responded to adversity. He kept fighting for rebounds, attacking the rim until things began to go his way. He displayed maturity this team will need when it gets physical during SEC play. I was encouraged to see Alex’s fight and know that we will see him at his best this season.
Potentially the Best 1-2 Backcourt Combo Ever
That’s not hyperbole. I’m sure many will go back to the archives of Kyle Macy and Jack Givens to dispute this claim or look back to Calipari’s first duo of Wall/Bledsoe, but I’ll take Ulis/Murray in March over all of them.
Wall and Bledsoe had the athleticism and explosiveness that cannot be replicated by this year’s guards. Where Ulis and Murray stand apart – consistency. Bledsoe was extremely raw during his time at Kentucky, and even more streaky, especially shooting the ball. Wall is the fastest man in the world with a basketball in his hands, but he turned the ball over so much. Wall hit big shots to win games, but I am much more confident with the ball in Tyler Ulis’ hands in crunch time. He’ll ensure they don’t do anything stupid with the ball. When the ball is in Murray’s hand late in the game, he has a killer instinct that is rare in all of basketball, an intangible that is uncoachable.
There’s still a lot of basketball to prove me wrong, but they’re going to get better before they get worse.
Offense in the Most Entertaining Manner Possible
Very few college basketball teams can run the court as efficiently as these Cats, nor can they provide the highlight reel finishes. The guards have a nose for getting to the rim and they rarely make dumb decisions. They also have bigs that can run the court and finish with authority, or clean up misses near the rim. There’s going to be a lot more of this coming this year:
A Team Equipped for a Tournament Run that Will Improve
Last year’s team was built to go “40-0.” They were the biggest team college basketball had ever seen. When they couldn’t score, they made sure the other team had an even tougher time scoring. Contrary to the cliche, “defense wins championships,” offense is what wins NCAA Tournaments.
In order to win the Tournament, it all falls on the guards. UConn has won four titles with one primary guard putting the team on his back and carrying them to a title. UK’s guards create space, giving others scoring opportunities. They have enough shooters to get passed one or two guys with a bad shooting night. They also have Jamal Murray. I cannot over-emphasize what it’s like to see Murray’s killer instinct. In the “Lebron/MJ comparison” what separates Jordan was the late-game killer instinct that cannot be taught. No matter how bad Jordan struggled early in the game, you knew he was going to be the best in the world with the game on the line. Jamal Murray has that killer instinct.
The best part is the anticipation of what is to come. Skal will figure out how to play without getting into foul trouble. I-zack Humphries is only 17, but he’ll find a way to be an important post presence during SEC play. Briscoe’s aggressive mistakes will happen less and less. Derek Willis has shown us early flashes. The only thing stopping him from being consistent is on the defensive end, something that can only improve with practice.
It’s a great time to be in the BBN, and it’s only going to get better.