Kentucky's flaws still front and center
Kentucky made almost half of its 3-pointers. Baylor made less than a fifth. Had you presented those conditions to anyone familiar with either basketball team before Friday night's hilariously named "Basketball Showdown" -- one that lived up to its name thanks only to the four-overtime women's contest that preceded it -- you would have been met with a consensus. Kentucky would win. Baylor would lose, and probably by a lot.
That didn't happen, and how Baylor instead left AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with a 67-62 win over the Wildcats instead says much more about where the Wildcats are right now than it does the Bears. Oh, and by the way, those things it says aren't exactly compliments.
At this point, Kentucky's flaws are versatile enough to fit any basketball predilection. Are you more of the heart-and-hustle, body-language-aficianado, these-kids-need-more-experience type? Then turn your attention to the all of the fuzzy things that make basketball fans angriest: The Wildcats' dreary energy level down the stretch in a close game, their lapsed attention spans during timeouts, their poor execution on offense, and their missed free throws (UK shot 52.2 percent).
But if you are a more analytical sort, Kentucky has plenty for you to nitpick too. Don't get me wrong: The Wildcats have played mostly brilliant offense to date, in large part because a) they have Julius Randle and b) they outrebound everyone on the offensive end. Those strengths were less drastic against Baylor, whose chief strength as a team (outside of perimeter shooting) is Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers' ability to prevent easy buckets in the paint. Kentucky shot 39.4 percent from inside the arc Friday night, which goes a long way toward explaining how they managed to make eight of their 17 3-pointers and turn the ball over on just 15.0 percent of their possessions, yet still lose.
All of this UK flaw talk risks us overlooking the performance Baylor put together Friday night. Don't forget it: Baylor, which made 55 percent of its two-point shots and scored 1.12 points per trip, was good. But Baylor was allowed to be good in some ways by a Kentucky defense that has been only slightly above average this season. The Wildcats failed to record a single steal Friday night -- no small feat, especially in a game with as much length, physicality, and sideline—margin passing as this one. Even worse, the Bears rebounded 54.5 percent of their misses. That means, in even simpler terms, that well over half the time a Baylor player missed a shot, the Bears got another crack at things a few seconds later.
Credit the Bears for doing so -- and credit point guard Kenny Chery, who turned in a dazzling 8-for-10 shooting night inside the arc, including a massive elbow jumper down the stretch. Baylor's team already looks more capable than the one that needed a reprieve to survive Dayton in Maui, and there are few teams in the country with that kind of interior length.
But credit Kentucky's young defense just as much. Box-outs? The Wildcats were just as lost before the ball went into the air, with almost zero in the way of help rotations, with Willie Cauley-Stein playing some of the worst pick-and-roll defense you'll ever see, with no one on his hip to cover things up -- the whole of UK's defense is a bit of a nightmare for John Calipari right now.
That's the most surprising thing about this UK season to date: The Wildcats just don't guard. Why so surprising? Because in the past decade, Calipari's teams have almost always defended exceptionally well. Rarely have they finished a season ranked outside the top 10 in points per possession allowed. Last season was a sudden and shocking departure from that trend, and while this campaign bears little resemblance thus far -- UK isn't that bad, rest assured -- the concerns of an ever-restless fanbase might rightfully be mounting.
After Kentucky's first loss of the season, when his shellshocked team nearly won a game it had no business winning on the sheer strength of its talent alone, Calipari reminded the media that it was a long season, that he "still had four months to get this thing right." He paused for a beat in the United Center press room and corrected himself: "Well, three and a half months now."
That clock keeps ticking. Is Kentucky getting better?