Fine-Tuning The Cats

Alex Poythress lays up a shot.

Alex Poythress lays up a shot.

The Cats came out of the break with their “I SURVIVED CAMP CAL” t-shirts. Against Mississippi, they came off the bench in waves, flying up and down the court, a lot of energy and fight.

However, there’s still a bit of “yes…but” hanging over this team. They did some good things, but they still did some things that were holdovers from early-season concerns.

Alex Poythress established himself well inside, more confidently, and rebounded strongly. But his mid-range shooting is still iffy. And he gets hampered by foul calls. From his body language on the bench, Calipari seems to feel they’re foolish fouls.

Jamal Murray hit some long ones, and he’s amazing at creating shots, especially at the end of the shot clock. But he still makes some poor decisions, particularly against zone defenses.

Rasheed Brooks (14) attempts to pivot around UK’s Charles Matthews (4) and Jamal Murray (23).

Rasheed Brooks (14) attempts to pivot around UK’s Charles Matthews (4) and Jamal Murray (23).

Isaiah Briscoe was back after a game off against Louisville, diving for balls, playing disruptive defense. But he’s still a wild card with the ball in the open court, and his free throw shooting is still an adventure.

Marcus Lee is becoming a stronger, energetic, more solid inside presence, grabbing rebounds (especially on the offensive boards), disrupting shooters. But they still can’t build an offense around his post play.

Skal had clearly worked on some things in camp. He was more aggressive defensively and on the boards. And they’re figuring out how to use his oh-so-soft shooting touch. But his weak grasp of the ball remains a problem.

Derek Willis is finally becoming convinced to take that corner shot, and he showed some strong athleticism on the boards. But he continues to infuriate Calipari with his defensive lapses.

Charles Matthews throws his body around, hawking the ball, crashing the boards. But his aggressive physical play makes him another target for refs’ whistles.

And/but then there’s the point guard. If there’s a better one in the country, perhaps we’ll see him somewhere down the road. Andy Kennedy, the Ole Miss coach, doesn’t think there’s a better one.

Jordan Smith, 2015 winner of The Voice, sang the National Anthem.

Jordan Smith, 2015 winner of The Voice, sang the National Anthem.

Tyler Ulis did just about everything well on Saturday night with no buts. No ifs or ands either.

The mighty-mite matchup against Ole Miss’ Stefan Moody was intriguing. Moody had nearly inflicted a first loss on the Cats a year ago, running around and through a bigger and stronger but slower UK backcourt.

This time, the talented Rebels guard ended up with 23, pretty much his average. But when it counted, early on as Kentucky was imposing its will, Ulis dominated. He hounded Moody around the court, kept in front of him, prevented him from getting clean catches and clear looks, his hands darting and snapping at the ball, disrupting Moody’s dribble, clogging his air space, keeping him from taking the ball where he wanted it.

It isn’t that Ulis forced Moody into taking bad shots. For long stretches of the first half, Moody had no shots!

John Pelphrey made a good point on TV. On this Mississippi team, Moody plays the point most of the time so there’s no other playmaker to set him up. Great off-the-ball guards need to be off the ball. Moody struggled with that against the cloying perimeter defense Ulis threw at him.

Ulis’ shooting? His scoring? Purely a bonus.

The hallmark of a good Calipari team is strong defense. I’m not talking about blocking shots. This may not be a great shot-blocking team, unless Skal becomes stronger and stays on the court longer as the season progresses. This is not an Anthony Davis/Nerlens Noel/Willie Cauley-Stein kind of team. But good shot blocking often covers up poor perimeter D, erasing the risks and chances the outside guys take because they know they have a Nerlens behind them.

This team plays the ball. Murray, Briscoe, Matthews, Dominique Hawkins and, of course, Ulis all have quick hands and feet and, for the most part, sound fundamentals. More than that, maybe, they have the energy for the part. They seem to thrive on preventing penetration, an even bigger deal in this year of the shorter shot clock.

So where are we? The overwrought headlines of a week ago worried about the 10-2 Cats “floundering” and “in trouble.” In fact, this is a team with some remarkable athletes. But do they have complementary skills? Can it all come together by March?

And let’s stop comparing this team to the 2015 edition. It’s a pointless, purposeless and lazy analysis.

The most futile of all observations is, “Wait til last year.” VT

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer