Through seven games, the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats are undefeated, ranked number 1 in both major polls and have already won a couple tilts with highly regarded big conference teams in Kansas and Providence (the only loss for both of those squads). Starting this Friday, Kentucky will kick off a three week stretch of games that includes high-profile battles with talented, nationally ranked programs Texas, UNC, Louisville and UCLA.
So in this calm before the storm, it seems appropriate to take a look back in awe at this turbo-charged start to the season.
In getting to this point, the Cats have been positively spectacular. Both statistically and aesthetically, this team is dominating the opposition. The “closest” game of the season was a 19 point win over Buffalo, and the average margin of victory thus far stands at 34 points.
Most notable among the list of truly remarkable qualities to this team is the stifling defense it plays.
The Wildcats are holding opponents to a 27.9% field goal percentage and giving up only 44 points per game. What’s more, the team is leading the nation with 9.3 blocks per game, and rejecting a mind-bending 18% of all opponents’ shots. This past Sunday Kentucky held Providence’s LaDontae Henton, who was leading the nation in scoring at 28 points per game coming in, to 3 points on 1 of 8 shooting.
But the numbers hardly tell the story. In seven consecutive rampages, the opposition has not simply been beaten. They have been summarily decimated—reduced to a disorganized rabble of slump-shouldered kids roaming the court desperately hoping to find an inch of space to breathe.
Obviously, it’s too early to start making bold proclamations. But suffice to say that if Kentucky maintains this level of defensive effort, it could rank as a historically excellent defense.
Another superlative that’s been thrown around in the season’s opening weeks has been: “biggest team ever.” While we aren’t sure if this Kentucky team is, in fact, the longest in college hoops history, there is no doubt that it is close. Among the 12 players receiving regular minutes, 10 are over 6-6, and seven are over 6-8. That’s tall.
But did we mention that Kentucky plays 12 guys? 12. The White and Blue platoons have been so successful that talented contributors from last year’s national runner up team Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins are relegated to victory cigar duty, though each is more than capable of making the most of their minutes.
A key as the season goes on will be how opposing teams handle the fresh legs of Kentucky, which sees no one playing more than 22 minutes per game at this point. On the flip side, the Cats must stick together and avoid any ego-driven issues resulting from the sharing of so many minutes among so many players who would doubtlessly star in other major programs.
Up until now, Coach Calipari deserves an A+ grade for getting everyone to buy in. In the past two seasons, meshing incoming talent with returning holdovers was a tall order for the staff, and as a general rule, the early part of the season has been marked by inconsistency.
Not so, this year. The mental makeup of this team more closely resembles the 2011-12 edition than any other of Calipari’s UK rosters, at least so far. The players are accepting their roles, and the body language resembles a group that enjoys playing together and revels in crushing the spirit of whomever they’re matched up with.
So let’s take a quick look at how the two platoons have measured up to date.
The Blue Team is the more experienced outfit, and the more lethal defensively. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are absolute rejectors in the paint, but it’s Karl Anthony-Towns who is leading the team with three blocks per night.
Towns also shows an incredible touch around the goal and is capable of creating offense from anywhere in the paint. He’s shown a small arsenal of post moves and a sweeping hook that is both unblockable and beautiful to behold.
The Harrison twins have picked up where they left off last year, with both showing improvement in the primary areas of concern from last year. Andrew has increased his assist to turnover ratio to above 2.0 and, surrounded by a plethora of offensive options, is not forcing shots. His brother Aaron, fresh off an NCAA tournament performance for the ages, has firmly established himself as a deadly long range shooter and an overall go-to scorer.
If there is a cause for concern with the blue team it is probably free throw shooting, which lingers around 60%. This platoon has rim protection to rival any of the greatest defensive teams of the past, but could also be susceptible to quick backcourts who can get around bigger bodies and shoot from distance. Towns also has a tendency to foul too much.
Arguably more productive per minute than the “A Team,” this group is fueled by the revelation that has been Tyler Ulis. The kid has jitterbug quickness and true point guard instincts, dishing out dimes while remaining perfect from the line and a lights out 8 for 14 from beyond the arc. He is also a perpetually annoying on-the-ball disruptor defensively whose numbers project to 4 steals per 40 minutes.
Ulis is complemented nicely by two other frosh in Trey Lyles and Devin Booker, who are collectively shooting just a hair under 50% from the field (45-92). Add in a lighter, more polished Dakari Johnson and the White Team may be the superior look to turn to when the Cats need a bucket. Providing insurance on the back line is the enigmatic Marcus Lee, who still hasn’t shown his full potential offensively but who is capable of eye popping defensive play and highlight reel dunks on breakaways.
The White Team’s weakness is inexperience and understanding its role. Thus far, they’ve been able to fall back on the knowledge that no matter what happens, there is another group of 5 studs on the bench ready to relieve them. This takes off the pressure to perform and has resulted in this platoon becoming a lethal counter punch to Kentucky’s formidable starting five.
Through this point in the year, it’s safe to say that whoever said you could split Kentucky into two top 25 teams was 100% on the money. The question now is can it be sustained?go back