LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball team broke for Christmas after beating Belmont 93-80 in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats had a week to work after last Saturday's loss at North Carolina, yet trailed the Bruins at halftime.
A look at the good and the bad for the Wildcats, who won't reconvene until after Christmas -- when it's time to prepare for the annual showdown with Louisville.
1. POLSON PROVIDES A SPARK. I wrote before the season I thought senior Jarrod Polson would be a factor for this team. I thought he would spell Andrew Harrison at point, and that his experience, passion for the program and ability to get the team into its offense would prove an asset. I thought that, but until Saturday, I was wrong. Polson wasn't playing significant minutes. He had no meaningful role. And he might not have one going forward. But against Belmont, with the Wildcats trailing by double digits, he came into the game, calmly ran the offense, played with energy, made a big three a sparked a late first-half run that eventually propelled the Wildcats into the lead. I want to say this, and it's not a biased statement, because it is grounded in history. No UK team has ever won a national championship without a Kentucky player either in the starting lineup or among its top six scorers. (It was the former until Darius Miller came of the bench for the championship team, but that team would NOT have won a championship without Miller.) That's not to say Kentucky can get it done without one. Louisville did last year, for the first time, though without a pair of well-timed threes from Louisville native Tim Henderson, it wouldn't have won a title, either. Polson isn't the most athletic guard UK has. He's not the fastest or best shooter. But with the array of talent around him, his knowledge of the offense, his experience, and his willingness to execute what Calipari draws up is important. He needs to play. I'm just a "basketball Benny," but I'm sticking by that.
(NOTE: See my video recap with John Lewis above, from Rupp Arena, and pay particular attention to what Polson says about the difficulty of playing point guard for Calipari, and hear his insight into Andrew Harrison's progress. I've always been impressed with Polson's insights whatever the team. You think about what that kid has seen -- he's had one of the best seats for one of the most exciting periods in UK history.)
2. ENERGY. You might or might not've noticed on television. But when Polson and Dominique Hawkins entered the game, Rupp Arena got a new feel. There was energy. Hawkins is the one Wildcat who will get on the floor. And when he does, usually good things happen. I'm not lobbying against the Harrison twins. In fact, more about one of them in the next note. But this team needs energy, and intensity. Hawkins brings it, and it's contagious.
"His exertion rate and heart rate is incredible to the point where I say, like, kid, stop," Calipari said. "But he just keeps busting to the next level. . . . What he does is he gets everything he can out of his body. It's incredible."
3. AARON GETS AN A. I know Julius Randle is a sure-fire NBA All-Star. He's unstoppable. A force. Aaron Harrison has been the MVP for Kentucky the past several games. He's making big shots. He drives for baskets when UK needs it. He rebounds his position.
"I don't think people who watch the game know which one is Aaron and which one is Andrew, I really don't," Calipari said. "Because there are times where you're looking at our team, who would you say is our best player?"
That's a rhetorical question. The name he was expecting, and got, was Aaron Harrison. He had 23 points, six rebounds and a team-best seven assists -- half the UK total -- in Saturday's win.
4. EARLY SHOOTING. The Wildcats have made a habit of falling into early deficits at home. Shot selection might be the most likely culprit. Of their first eight shots Saturday, four were threes. They missed all four threes, made all four from two point range. Usually, when the shot selection improves, they shoot a much better percentage in the second half. That happened Saturday, when they made 16 of 25 second half shots (1 of 4 from three-point range) for 64 percent.
5. RANDLE REBOUNDS. Coming off his worst game of the season against North Carolina, Julius Randle re-established himself against Belmont. He scored 29 points, made 8 of 10 from the field and 13 of 19 from the line. Belmont coach Rick Byrd said his team just didn't have an answer.
"The big difference in the game was Julius Randle," Byrd said. "If they didn't have him, I know we could guard them better. He made eight shots and scored 29 points. I don't know if I can find many games were a guy gets three and a half times the amount of points of shots that he took. We couldn't stop him from making it except by fouling him. He's so strong, our guys fouled him and he didn't even notice. I felt like we did all we could, we just have no bulk inside to match him inside. You need bulk and ability to move laterally against a guy who can play like him. Length and size help, also. We are 0-for-3 in that category. Credit Kentucky for gathering together and doing what they're supposed to do. I know they have done that a couple of times this year and Cleveland State strung it out even longer than we were able too. They did what teams do that are supposed to win. Kentucky people don't want to hear it. Duke does it a lot. The great programs find a way at the end."
Calipari said he liked what he saw from Randle.
"Julius was a beast running," Calipari said. "He got up and down the floor. We put him in different positions. I love that he made a jump shot. We're trying to tell him, shoot the ball; you're a good shooter. He missed some free throws today. He's a great free throw shooter. I don't understand what going on with his free throw shooting. Probably thinking too much. But you know, he ran, he was strong around the goal. As they tried to rip it, he's getting better."
6. POWER IN THE POST. As the Wildcats prepare for Louisville, it's hard to imagine any other game plan than to pound the post often. Randle was 8 of 10 from the field Saturday. Willie Cauley-Stein was 8 of 10 from the field. When those two get good shots, the Wildcats are nearly impossible to deal with. But they're not yet doing it consistently, and they're not playing defense consistently.
7. RUPP ROARING. The Rupp Arena crowd of 24,224 was UK's second-largest of the season and largest since the season-opener against UNC-Asheville. And it was one of the best crowds of the season. Holiday crowds often feature fans who don't usually get into the arena, scrounging tickets from friends or buying where they can. Wherever the crowd came from, it was one of the best in the place this season. 8. THE ROTATION. We're almost to the New Year, and Calipari still doesn't seem to have settled on a rotation that satisfies him. Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson aren't meaningful part of things. Derek Willis got some minutes against Belmont, but wasn't effective. It's yet another sign that this is a process. It's going to take time.
9. LOUISVILLE. From the Kentucky perspective (and, really, from the Louisville perspective, too) there's really no way to know what to expect from the game next Saturday. Certainly, I have less of a feel for this meeting than any I can remember. In my mind, UK could win by double digits, and could lose by double digits. You've got two teams with flaws, and the question is going to be which can impose its strengths. I'll have much more to say about this matchup. Initially, I have to say I will probably go with UK in Rupp. I think its size advantage will be the difference. But Louisville is improving rapidly. It should be fun.