Looking back (while I was away) and ahead to Tuesday night

As I noted recently, a little surgery UK last week curtailed my blog posting. In fact, one surgery turned into two, but that’s another story. Doing better every day. Slowly working my way back into the thick of things, or “swim of things” as my horoscope put it this morning, according to the wife, who for the past week-plus has been more like my nurse. The plan is for me to be at Rupp Arena for the Kentucky-Tennessee game Tuesday night. Looking forward to it.

So what happened while I was away, or at least coming out of anesthesia?

First, Kentucky barely won a basketball game at Vanderbilt. I watched the first half on television on Thursday night, although I had to admit to being distracted by a sleep-deprived state. I went to bed at halftime thinking the Cats were comfortably in control — though I was conscious enough to think the lead should have been bigger — and awoke the next morning to find they had had fallen behind in the second half and had to pull out the win against what is truly a bad Commodores team.

Watched the second half later, including the part where UK appeared to have been completely surprised by this new strategic configuration called the zone defense. Confusion, trepidation and then another missed shot appeared to constitute most possessions. And remember, you couldn’t blame the odd bench configuration at Memorial Gym for Kentucky’s offensive woes. The Cats were on the John Calipari end of the floor where they could clearly hear their screaming coach.

OK, no big deal. First conference road game for a young team. A win is a win is a win. Lesson learned and all that. Alex Poythress played poorly in front of the local folks, the struggles of a kid trying too hard when he comes back home. That’s part of it.

Then came Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, and this time I was in a much more lucid state for my viewing pleasure. And watching Texas A&M’s Elston Turner was a pleasure if you are true basketball fan. You had to think what it would be like to be a good but fairly unheralded player and step on the floor of Rupp Arena and make almost every shot you throw up on the way to a 40-point night that you will remember for the rest of your life. That is a true hoops dream. And Turner made that dream come true.

On the flip side, it was the second home loss for Calipari’s Cats this season. (Good thing UK didn’t jump to the Big 12 or something — one loss has come to a current Big 12 team in Baylor and the other to a former Big 12 team in A&M.)

From a purely number-crunching point of view, it was one of┬áthe worst defensive performances by a Kentucky team in a long time, or one of the best offensive performances by an opponent in a long, long time. Given that the Aggies did not come into the game as an offensive juggernaut, you’d have to go with the former assertion. Billy Kennedy’s club averaged 1.337 points per possession, or 133.7 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculous number for most any opponent, but especially an opponent of a┬áCalipari-coached team.

No other team had averaged more than 1.25 against a Calipari defense since he came to Kentucky. That was Connecticut, which averaged 1.253 points per possession when beating Kentucky in the finals of the Maui Invitational in 2010. Silver lining: That’s the same 2010-11 Kentucky team that ended up in the Final Four, where it lost again to the Huskies.

Obviously, Turner’s 40 points contributed mightily to the Aggies’ amazing offensive efficiency. And yet he wasn’t the only reason. The other was another bad habit that reared its ugly head. Kentucky did not rebound, especially on the defensive end. Remember in the season opener, when Maryland grabbed 52.8 percent of its offensive rebound opportunities, the single stat that nearly allowed the Terps to beat the Cats in opener? Texas A&M came close to that number, grabbing 48.4 percent of its offensive rebound opportunities. That followed last Thursday night’s poor glass effort, when UK allowed Vanderbilt to grab 41.7 percent of its offensive rebound chances. Those are the only three games this season in which the opponent got more than 36 percent of its offensive rebound opportunities.

Texas A&M got 15 offensive rebounds. Kentucky got 16 defensive rebounds. Seven of UK’s number belonged to Nerlens Noel, who had a truly heroic effort built mainly off hustle plays. Poythress was the only other Cat to grab more than three defensive rebounds. Willie Cauley-Stein had just one in 24 minutes on the floor. Kyle Wiljter had two in 19 minutes. Archie Goodwin did not have a single defensive rebound in 34 minutes; Julius Mays none in 23 minutes.

It wasn’t as if A&M was making every shot either. Sure, Turner was ridiculous, but as a team, the Aggies shot 52.5 percent. Hot, yes. On fire, no. The Aggies were just the third team to shoot better than 50 percent against a Calipari team at Kentucky. The other two were UConn, 57.7 at Maui, and Indiana, 52.2 in last year’s NCAA Sweet 16. But Connecticut got just 27.3 percent of its offensive rebounds, Indiana 33.3 percent.

What does this all mean? In my book, there is some toughness lacking in this young team. Calipari seems to obsess on fight and getting 50-50 balls, but he’s clearly right in this instance. This team gets pushed around more than his other Kentucky clubs. There’s not a Patrick Patterson or a Josh Harrellson or a DeAndre Liggins or a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who will get that key rebound or that key loose ball or that key stop. Not yet, anyway.

And as a young team still learning to play with each other, the players haven’t learned how to compensate for this deficiency with good rotations or proper positioning, the things required to get the edge on the opponent. I still say that by the end of the season, that 2010-11 team with Harrellson, Liggins, Brandon Knight, etc., was one of the better defensive teams in terms of rotations and execution that we’ve seen around here in awhile.

So that brings us to Tuesday night’s game with Tennessee. After a decent 4-1 start, the Vols have been a disappointment, sitting 8-6 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. They don’t have Jeronne Maymon, a rabid rebounder who is sitting out the season because of a knee injury. They have trouble scoring, putting up just 36 points in a one-point loss at Georgetown, then scoring just 38 points in an eight-point loss at Virginia.

They are capable, however. They upset a good Wichita State team, 69-60, at Thompson-Boling. And they scored 80 points in an 85-80 loss to arch-rival Memphis. That game also was at Thompson-Boling.

In their SEC opener, the Vols were pounded on the glass by now what we are recognizing as a good Ole Miss team — Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson was right — losing the board battle by 15 and the game by 18. Tennessee bounced back to do a better job on the boards against Alabama, outrebounding the Tide by 15 but still losing the game, 68-65, on Saturday at Tuscaloosa as the host team made the necessary plays down the stretch.

The interesting thing was that UT’s inside star, Jarnell Stokes, sat the bench down the stretch. He played just 21 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing seven rebounds, but he obviously had done something — or not done what he was supposed to — to end up in Cuonzo Martin’s doghouse, or at least on the bench.

The Kentucky game was Stokes’ collegiate debut last year, and the Memphis native scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds in 17 minutes. ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes made the statement Saturday that the sophomore had not progressed at the pace most people had hoped, a statement that Martin contended, to a point.

But when he is playing up to his potential, or his expectations, Stokes is the player that Kentucky doesn’t have right now — a tough guy who can get the rebound or that tough loose ball.

That’s enough for now. Glad to be back, if not yet all the way back.


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