Rocky Topped

Benny Snell rushed for 114 yards against Georgia.  The Cats lost to the Dogs 27 to 24. Photo by Victoria Graff.

Benny Snell rushed for 114 yards against Georgia. The Cats lost to the Dogs 27 to 24. Photo by Victoria Graff.

I guess it’s another one of those losses that doesn’t matter, if the objective is just to reach six wins and a bowl invitation.

But as Kentucky has stepped up in class recently, establishing its competitiveness in the country’s toughest football conference, it has now fumbled two consecutive chances to make a statement against two of the SEC East’s perennial strongmen, Georgia and Tennessee.

The lack of a passing game has become more than just a chance for it to trot out its explosive running game. It has hampered its ability to exploit mismatches on defense – especially in the red zone, where it’s tough to win if you keep matching threes with the other team’s sevens. That arithmetic will never hold up. And, of course, turning the ball over at key moments never helps either.

But even with the continually desultory passing game – overthrows, underthrows, deflections, drops – nobody can blame the offense for this loss. The Cats scored 36 points, held the ball for 35 minutes, rushed for 443 yards. Five men had 70-plus rushing yards each. Boom Williams had 127.

The problem Saturday was the defense’s inability to stop Tennessee’s offense. I know, Joshua Dobbs always cuts up the Kentucky defense. But that’s an observation, not an analysis. It’s also an excuse. Other teams have stopped Dobbs. There will always be strong, multi-threat quarterbacks in the SEC. Whether it’s personnel or strategy, Kentucky had better find ways to defend against other teams’ quarterbacks who can pass and (oh, my) also run.

So on to Austin Peay and what everyone assumes will be Kentucky’s sixth win. A bowl invitation should follow. A great cry of relief will resound in Big Blue Nation. But it will be just relief, when it feels like it could have been more.

The Cats and the Kittens

One-and-dones are ultra-talented, exciting and compelling.

But they’re freshmen. The college game is a new animal to them – at once faster and more disciplined, more tightly officiated, more competitive.

Whenever John Calipari has had a team dominated by freshmen – the 2012-13 group of Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress comes to mind – it has struggled.

So, in the Stephen F. Austin curtain-raiser, Bam Adebayo got whistled twice in the first minute of the game. Malik Monk soon joined him on the bench. Monk wasn’t making his shots anyway. And Sasha Killeya-Jones looked a little lost out there. Back to the bench for him too.

In the Canisius game, Bam turned it around and Monk seemed, finally, to find his shot.

Cal is still playing with his toy soldiers – and griping that some of the soldiers don’t do what he wants them to do – but the pieces seem to be settling into place. Four starters are set and the rest of the pieces will move in and out, depending on who is hitting his shots and who isn’t grabbing rebounds or not talking on defense or getting pick-pocketed on a backdoor play.

This team won’t be a repeat of 2012-13. But its upside depends on how this incredible group of athletes blends and meshes. When Cal has his new high-octane backcourt in all at once – Monk, Briscoe and Fox – they seem to be playing different games at different speeds.

Fox is an amazing and joyful athlete. His full-court sprints to the hole are breathtaking. He makes everybody run and be ready for a dish. But that’s not Briscoe’s game. The sophomore can certainly run but seems to thrive best breaking down opponents in the half-court.

And Monk, so far, kind of waits for the ball to come to him. Tyler Ulis always seemed to know where Jamal Murray was. Not seen that yet from either Fox or Briscoe.

If anyone reads this as criticism or disappointment, let me assert right now that it’s anything but. I’ve felt the two most exciting athletes of the Calipari era were John Wall and Archie Goodwin. But Wall was in control and his team went 35-3 and was a No. 1 tournament seed. Goodwin was out of control and his team went 21-12 and failed to make the tournament.

Fox is that kind of exciting, but it’s Briscoe providing the veteran’s control. Cal said, “Was Isaiah this kind of player last year?” and smiled.

Freshmen are freshmen. Who knows that better than Calipari?

[NOTE: By now, you’ll all be talking about the Michigan State game, a true early crucible for this year’s freshmen. Did the pressure of New York and a Tom Izzo-coached team destroy or inspire Fox, Monk & Co.?] VT