[Moderated by Matt Jones]
Well, for what seems like the first time in 4 years, John Calipari was wrong. After Tuesday’s 75-65 win over Tennessee, Calipari seemed to have resigned himself to his team’s limitations so far this season, proclaiming that he couldn’t “see this team being up by 20 on anybody” and that they would have to learn to grind out games to win. Well, the reverse psychology worked to perfection Coach. For the first time since maybe this season, the Wildcats took what was a 30-25 lead at halftime and came out in the 2nd half and stepped on the Tigers’ throats and didn’t let up, cruising to a 22-point win on the road, 75-53.
Playing without Willie Cauley-Stein for the first time this season, the Wildcats proved they could play just as effectively without their mustard to Nerlens Noel’s ketchup. In fact, throughout a lot of the game, Kentucky was playing condiment-free as Noel found himself on the bench with foul trouble. In the absence of Kentucky’s 2 true post presences, UK responded by going to a smaller lineup, playing Poythress and Wiltjer at the 4 and 5 positions, which eventually worked in the ‘Cats favor, spreading out and slashing through Auburn’s zone defense. Wiltjer was the catalyst of the UK offense for the 2nd straight game as he paced the Wildcats off the bench with 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 beautiful dimes. Heres some thoughts from the game:
Kyle Wiltjer was the X-factor without Nerlens or Willie in the lineup, stretching the defense and exposing Chubb and forcing him to stretch out to the perimeter to guard him (There will be more Chubb references). Kyle knocked down 6 of his 13 shots, including 3-6 from 3PT range, and was particularly deadly from the high post position, where he made a few key assists from and knocked down the free-throw line range jumper to keep the Auburn zone honest. Wiltjer’s improvement from the combined 2-point effort against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M has been huge for the ‘Cats in the last 2 games, and if Kyle can keep being the shooter we all know he is, he will be the perfect compliment to Harrow, Goodwin, and Poythress getting shots towards the basket.
Alex Poythress may not have had the flashiest stat line, scoring 12 points and pulling down 7 boards, but during UK’s key stretch in the 2nd half when they extended the lead from 55-43 to 69-45, Poythress came up huge in a lane that was left unclogged by Nerlens Noel, pulling down a string of rebounds on both sides of the ball, and on offense he filled his lane perfectly and was the beneficiary of a few great passes from Wiltjer in the high post. At this point in the season, you can tell that Poythress is still not comfortable handling the ball from the perimeter, and while he’s been a pretty good spot-up shooting target, his biggest impact should come in the form of cutting towards the basket without the ball and creating his own offense off putbacks. I think tonight’s game could be a wake up call for Alex at how effective he can be in the low block considering how well he played when forced to do so. I’m sure Cal will be critical of some of Poythress’ mental mistakes, but from an effort standpoint, Alex showed that he is a force on the boards when he puts his mind to it.
It was a tale of 2 teams as far as shooting goes, as Kentucky started the game with a blistering 2-14 shooting from the field, which resulted in an exciting 6-6 game at the halfway point of the first half. However, after Nerlens Noel picked up his 2nd foul with 8 minutes left in the first half, UK went to a smaller lineup and began to pick apart the Tiger defense, going 28-41 (68.3%) the rest of the way to finish above 50% for the game. Auburn on the other hand, could not find the bucket if it were taped to their forehead, as they shot a combined 34.5% from the field for the game including a perfect 0-15 from behind the 3PT line. However, according to announcer Matt Doherty Auburn was playing with a lineup that included 4 “shooters”. Good call on that one, Matt. I can’t imagine why you couldn’t win at North Carolina.
Nerlens Noel introduced an unsuspecting Auburn player’s neck to Kentucky’s version of “Chubb”
Ryan Harrow continued to be the steadying force that Kentucky’s offense needs, knowing when to push the tempo, which Calipari stressed a lot tonight, and when to pull the ball out and run the offense. Also, Harrow has shown his penchant for trash talking a little bit too, as the 4’2 player on Auburn scored a few buckets early and started to become vocal, Harrow used every opportunity he had to take the ball right through him to the basket and seemed to take him scoring personally. Harrow finished with 12 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds in what was overall a solid game for the Sophomore guard. Just cut down on those 5 turnovers and we’ll be gravy.
All in all, Kentucky fans should be happy with this performance. On the road in conference, once again another team’s Super Bowl, the young ‘Cats responded greatly on the road and throttled an Auburn team that they should have throttled. As easy as that sounds, last year’s team stomped on the teams they knew were miles below them, which is something that this year’s team has struggled with, until tonight that is. Minus half of the “Twin Towers” duo, especially one who was just starting to find his groove in the lineup, and with the other half in foul trouble, Kentucky still managed to execute their improvised gameplan to perfection, managed to subdue the powerful combo of Chubb and Dixon-Tatum (stifles laughs) and took it to the home team for the final 20 minutes of the game. Go ‘Cats.
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