LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In four Southeastern Conference games, the University of Kentucky basketball team's average winning margin had been 9.3 points coming into Tuesday night's game against Texas A&M.
The Aggies had won four of their past five games, including a win over Arkansas at home and Tennessee in Knoxville. But UK turned this game into a yawner midway through the second half, and a big part of that was the play of Alex Poythress. Examining why, and more about UK's 68-51 victory in Rupp Arena in our customary nine thoughts on the game:
1. ALEX POYTHRESS LOOKING MORE LIKE ALEX THE GREAT. They way the sophomore forward played in this game was the difference between an opponent hanging around to keep the margin in the 8-12 point range and UK pulling away to lead by 21 late. Poythress finished with 16 points (on 4 of 7 shooting) and five rebounds. He also made 8 of 9 free throws. One more stat: Poythress played 12.5 percent of UK's minutes, but scored 29 percent of its points. His confidence level is rising every game, and he's one of the big reasons UK may be a far better team than its "resume" might say it is. "I'm so proud of Alex, how he played," UK coach John Calipari told reporters after the game. "I'm really, really proud of Alex and what he's been able to do in practice, and now you're seeing in games. … He made plays you were like, how did he make that play? We got to 11 (point lead) because of him. Then we were able to get to 16 or 17." UK led only 37-33 early in the second half when Poythress scored seven straight points to put UK up 11. That was the start of a 21-7 run, and it was the difference between Texas A&M having a glimmer of hope and UK going on to a blowout. He has a chance to fill a Darius Miller-type role for this UK team, but he hasn't yet demonstrated that kind of consistency, and done it in a big game on a big stage, to be that kind of presence yet.
2. A SHOT IS A PASS. Perhaps UK's most impressive stat this season is its offensive rebounding percentage. It has, on the season, rebounded 44.3 percent of its own missed shots. That percentage leads the NCAA, and the only major-conference teams in its offensive rebounding class at the moment are Baylor, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Indiana and Arizona. UK held a 15-3 edge in second-chance points on Tuesday night and grabbed 12 of its 28 misses. "It seemed like a few times they were just playing ping-pong off the backboard," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. 3. DAKARI JOHNSON MOVING TO THE FOREFRONT. The freshman big man played big in his 16 minutes against Tennessee, but that was only a prelude. He was the primary five-man against Texas A&M, on the court for 24 minutes. And though his numbers won't knock anyone over — 6 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 24 minutes — the Wildcats were plus-22 when he was on the court, and that's a major contribution, largest on the team in the game, in fact. "When you're coaching you coach the game to win," Calipari said. "And then you work on egos later. Dakari stayed in because he's playing better than (Willie Cauley-Stein). . . . He's doing some good stuff. Going after balls. Got to make free throws. Don't have to make them all. You just can't miss them all. But he's really doing some good stuff." He was rewarded by being sent out to start the second half. It'll be interesting to see whether that signals whether Calipari is set to make a change in a starting lineup that has been the same for the past 11 games. 4. BENCH CONTRIBUTES. UK improved to 8-0 this season when its bench has outscored an opponent. For 18 games, with a team that's as deep as this one was billed to be, that's a bit surprising. But when you get inside the numbers, maybe it isn't. Calipari's bench has played just 26 percent of the team's minutes this season, and that ranks 275th out of 351 NCAA Division I teams. So the bench hasn't been a weapon. But with Poythress and Johnson playing the way they are, that could change.
5. WHERE'S WILLIE? Willie Cauley-Stein has been at times this season the most important player on UK's team. Not the best, but the most important. Through ten games, he was matching Anthony Davis' shot-blocking pace. But over the past several games, he's been supplanted by Johnson and, in general, appeared to be in a kind of funk. He's scored only three points in three games and played only nine minutes against Texas A&M. As a second-year player, one would expect that Cauley-Stein would snap out of it soon. He's one of UK's more likable players and there's no question he's a smart kid. If he's concerned, Calipari didn't express it after the Texas A&M win. "I don't know what's wrong with Willie but he'll be fine," Calipari said. ". . . You know, he wants to do well. He was doing really well, and he backed up a little bit. It's like a slippery slope. When you back up, you don't keep bringing it. All of a sudden you go that other way. This sport is mental as much as anything else." 6. DEFENSE CLAMPED DOWN IN SECOND HALF. The Wildcats held Texas A&M to 32 percent second-half shooting, and some of those baskets came during garbage time. They allowed the Aggies to attempt only four three-pointers in the second half. And Texas A&M had only 10 rebounds in the half, five on each end. Because of its defensive lapses, this team perhaps doesn't get the credit it should for its periods of defensive dominance. The Wildcats are capable of being one of the nation's best shut-down defensive teams. But they have periods where they give up easy drives to the basket or open jump shots that drive their coach to distraction. Calipari, after the game, used the word "upside" a couple of times. "We're okay defensively," Calipari said. "If you look at our numbers, across the nation, where we are, it's high. But I'm telling you, if you look at the upside of where we should be, where we could be, where we need to be, we're not there. We're just not."
7. JULIUS RANDLE'S PASSING. Randle notched his 11th double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds but he pleased Calipari most with his passing. Randle has begun to break his tendency of holding the ball too long in the post. He had three assists but only one turnover in the game. "He had 13 points, maybe could've had three or four more, but you'd have had five more turnovers," Calipari said. ". . . The M.O. is the minute he gets it, everybody runs to the lane. So now when he passes it, you can either shoot it or post it to him when he kicks it out and slides to the low post or drive it in or swing the ball and we can play. He wants to do well. There is no question. I mean, he rebounded the crap out of the ball today."
8. GOOD START, BAD START. Unlike in past games, the Wildcats got off to a quick start. They made three out of their first four three-point attempts and led 11-5. Unfortunately, as often happens with college teams, early threes mean just one thing — you're going to see more threes. UK shot 15 three-pointers in the first half, which is just what Texas A&M wanted. Kennedy said he was fine with that, but that UK eventually went where Calipari wanted it to go — to the rim. When asked how many threes he wanted to see the Wildcats shoot, Kennedy said, "A lot. You know, we wanted them – and they came out and made a few threes early. You have got to be able to try to protect the paint," he said. "The Harrison twins, I've watched them for years in Texas get to the free-throw line and (James) Young. I mean, everybody they have on the floor can drive the ball and put pressure at the basket. So we wanted to pack the paint and keep it tight and hope they miss shots. I thought that worked for a while but they just wore us down by continually driving the ball and getting to the free throw line. They shot 27 free throws, you know, they did a good job of attacking the basket, when the missed somebody tipped it in. You get 12 offensive rebounds, they score on them, I don't know how many points off of it. But they physically wore us down."
9. ANDREW HARRISON KEEPS COMING. Calipari singled Harrison out for outstanding point guard play in the first half — eight points, six rebounds, three assists with just two turnovers in 19 minutes played. He didn't quite keep up that pace in the second half, but his coach likes where his game is headed. "He played a great first half. He was good in the second half, but he wasn't as good as he was in the first half," Calipari said. "I thought he did some good stuff. The thing I'm looking for is more energy, more juice. I don't want anybody to watch him play and say where's his energy? It should never happen, never, not once. So that is all we're working on. But it's not just him. It's all these guys. More spirit defensively." UK returns to action Saturday afternoon at 1:30 against Georgia in Rupp Arena.
BONUS THOUGHT: I'm all for innovation, but whoever at ESPN thought of the baseline split-screen featuring commentary from Jimmy Dykes while crouching in the end zone holding a microphone -- don't ever do that again.