I’m not just going to blindly rave about this Kentucky Wildcats team a few weeks into the season. They’re young, inexperienced, and immature; they make the same mistakes that the 2009-10 Kentucky team did. But, that’s where the similarities end.
Brandon Knight is not John Wall, and that’s not a bad thing. In Wall’s first three games, he committed 13 turnovers. In Knight’s first three games, he committed 10. That may not seem like a big difference, but Wall averaged 4.0 turnovers per game for the season. Knight, on the other hand, had one bad game against Oklahoma with five turnovers.
Wall committed so many turnovers because he played at warp speed. Knight, while not as fast, is more controlled and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – runs the offense better for the college game.
Last year’s team was full of individual talent, but the Wildcats lacked cohesion as one unit. When they were on, they were unstoppable because they overwhelmed opponents with their talent, explosiveness, speed, and size. When they were off, like in the Elite Eight game against West Virginia (4/32 from three-point range), they were really off. Each game, fans held their breaths, unsure which team would show up.
You can just sense that this year’s team plays better together. It’s evident that they have better ball movement. In multiple possessions, the ball would pass through several pairs of hands before there was a dribble or a shot.
They’re also better shooters. The biggest weakness of last year’s team was, of course, three-point shooting. This year, the two primary ballhandlers, Knight (40% on the season) and Doron Lamb (67% on the season), are both excellent outside shooters. In addition, Darius Miller (50% on the season), the quiet team leader, is also a good shooter. Needless to say, three-point shooting won’t be a problem.
The biggest weakness this year is probably the lack of size. Kentucky had 6’11″ DeMarcus Cousins, 6’10″ Daniel Orton, 6’9″ Patrick Patterson, and 6’9″ Perry Stevenson last year. This year, 6’10″ Josh Harrellson plays center while 6’9″ Terrence Jones plays the power forward position.
In addition, coach John Calipari probably prefers the lack of size. In the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, ideally, there are four perimeter players with one player in the middle. Last year, Calipari didn’t implement the DDMO as much as he wanted to because he had so much size.
This year, the DDMO is a big part of the Wildcat offense. Jones is perfect for it; against Oklahoma, he started a fast break instead of passing to a point guard and brought the ball up the court himself. He then fed Harrellson a sizzling no-look pass for an easy layup. Having a 6’9″ athletic forward who can also handle the ball is a true luxury.
Yes, this team got lackadaisical and defensively lazy and let Oklahoma back into the game after leading by 18 points. What do you expect a young team to do? Calipari preached about how last year’s Cats didn’t have the “killer instinct.” They would squander leads due to immaturity and complacency.
It’s too early to tell whether this team has the killer instinct. However, I never felt truly comfortable with any lead the Cats had last year; the team was too unpredictable, too hot and cold. I feel confident in this year’s team. Perhaps it’s because their style of play is calmer, smoother, and more team-oriented. It’s not as wild or fast-paced; hence, no cardiac arrests.
And, this team is willing to play team defense. Sure, there were defensive lapses. Sure, they have liabilities on defense. But, there was less ball-hawking and more help defense than we saw last year. While it may not be a block party, the defense is more fundamentally sound.
DeAndre Liggins, in particular, is a shutdown defender who hustles (team-high three steals vs. Oklahoma). In addition, Liggins has elevated his offensive game to a new level by attacking the basket more often.
Am I done singing the praises of this year’s team? Yeah, I’m done. But when this team gets farther in the NCAA Tournament than last year’s team did, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.