LEXINGTON — There are still plenty of growing pains left for sure for these Kentucky Wildcats, but I come out of this past week’s Southeastern Conference play more encouraged than I’ve been all season that Kentucky will be a viable Final Four contender.
Still too much work to be done to rate the Wildcats over the likes of Arizona and Syracuse, but beyond those two, it’s anybody’s game as we ride through the middle stages of the season.
The latest example of UK’s improvement came Saturday in a 74-66 victory over a good, physical Tennessee team at Rupp Arena.
That game came on the heels of a gritty, albeit losing effort, in overtime Tuesday at Arkansas.
In both contests there were long stretches where Kentucky showed growth, both emotionally and physically, not to mention talent, that you want to see.
I wouldn’t want the NCAA Tournament to start today, mind you, but in some six weeks when the madness starts, I see Kentucky being a team nobody will relish facing.
In Saturday’s win over the Volunteers, Kentucky rode a strong first half from freshman forward Julius Randle, and then, when Tennessee clamped down on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound NBA lottery pick (to be), freshman point guard Andrew Harrison responded with his best game yet, sparking a 40-34 second-half advantage that clinched the win.
The 13th-ranked Wildcats improved to 13-4 overall and 3-1 in the SEC heading into a Tuesday night home game with Texas A&M (9 p.m. on ESPN), while the Volunteers slipped to 11-6 and 2-2 and drifted towards the NCAA bubble.
Two halves, two players
Andrew Harrison finished with a career-high 26 points, including 7 of 13 from the field and 10 of 10 at the free throw line, to lead the Wildcats.
Randle led UK to a precarious 34-32 halftime edge with 16 points and two rebounds, and finished with 18 points and those same two rebounds.
The efforts of those two Wildcats offset a spectacular showing by Tennessee’s 6-8, 260-pound junior forward Jarnell Stokes, who scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
“Julius Randle did a great job putting his team on his back,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said of the first half, when Kentucky had to rally from an early, nine-point deficit. “He got to the rim, got fouled, made his free throws ... even made a 3-point shot.
“Andrew Harrison did a great job of attacking that ball screen in the second half, getting in the lane, shooting a pull-up. So give him credit for making that adjustment. He made the plays that got them over the hump.”
Martin got no argument from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“In the second half they just went at him (Randle), and he didn’t give it up quick enough, and I just wasn’t comfortable with what I was seeing, so I just said ‘spread the court, we’re going with Andrew,’” Calipari said. “Andrew did an unbelievable (job). That’s who I expect. Maybe not 10 of 10 (free throws), but what he did in the pick-and-rolls. He got in the lane; he made the right play; he had no turnovers; he made big shots, and he ran our team.”
“I felt like in the pick and roll, I could get to the middle and beat the big guy off the dribble,” Andrew said. “I made a couple mistakes at the end by dribbling it and throwing it behind me, but for the most part we played pretty well.”
“He played like a point guard,” Calipari added of Andrew. “He got better today. He really did.”
Aaron Harrison also had a nice game, adding 14 points and four rebounds.
Game too physical?
The efforts of Randle and the Harrison twins were more than enough to offset subpar showings by sophomore big man Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman swing man James Young.
Cauley-Stein and Young will both probably go in the first 10 picks of this spring’s NBA Draft, but they appeared to shy away from the physicality of Saturday’s game. Young had just eight points and one rebound in 36 minutes, and Cauley-Stein was scoreless, with three rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in 19 minutes.
“It was a rough game, and some of our guys are in for a rough game, and some don’t play as well when it’s rough,” Calipari said. “Willie Cauley didn’t play as well as he had been playing, and James Young was a non-factor.”
Calipari did not sound overly concerned, however, perhaps because freshman center Dakari Johnson (four points and four rebounds in 16 minutes) came off the bench to provide the energy that Cauley-Stein did not.
“Dakari was terrific,” Calipari said.
Sophomore forward Alex Poythress contributed a pedestrian four points and three rebounds in 21 minutes, though Calipari again raved about him.
Not to be lost in all these numbers was Kentucky’s other-worldly 23 of 24 shooting at the free throw line that defies all logic.
The only significant downside on this afternoon for the Wildcats was Tennessee’s 39-24 advantage on the boards.
The good news there for Kentucky is that the Wildcats probably won’t see another team with two more rugged, aggressive big men than Stokes and the 6-8 Jeronne Maymon.
Maymon finished with 12 points and five rebounds, while UT’s leading scorer on the season, senior swing man Jordan McRae, finished with 17 points.
UK obviously had no answer for Stokes.
“He’s a great player,” Randle said of Stokes. “He’s strong, skilled, and he moves well. He did a really good job today, and Tennessee is a good team.”
But Kentucky is better, and the trend is moving upward for the Wildcats.