Kentucky Basketball: Cal’s Cats Back On The Winning Side of Things

The Wildcats defeated LSU 92-85 Tuesday night, but concerns remain for the state of Kentucky Basketball.

This season’s version of Coach John Calipari’s “tweak” had a rocky but ultimately successful start at Rupp Arena tonight. No.15 Kentucky Basketball hoped to snap out their doldrums versus the SEC cellar-dwelling Bayou Bengals. In the end they did come away with the win, but many of the concerns Big Blue fans had during the recent  losing skid were hardly allayed in the process. The Cats had as much as a 25 point lead in the second half, but LSU cut the lead to six late before the Wildcats salted away the victory.  Here is a look at some good and bad that fans can take away from the contest.

Kentucky Proud

Th positives must start with the performance of Wenyen Gabriel. The Sudanese freshman tied for scoring honors with 23 points on some very sharp shooting. He was seven out of 11 from the field, including three of six tries from behind the arc. Gabriel also hit six of seven from the free throw line while pulling down eight rebounds. His 31 minutes played were marked with a lot of energy and provided some much needed production from the four-spot that has been the subject of much concern for the Cats this season.

Malik Monk matched his fellow classmate with 23 points on eight of 15 shooting from the field. He and Gabriel combined for 30 points in the first 20 minutes, leading Kentucky to a 43-27 halftime lead they never relinquished.

After being embarrassed on the boards during the blowout loss at Florida Saturday night, Kentucky improved on the boards. The Cats out-rebounded the Tigers 40-26. Bam Adebayo led the Cats with 9 boards. The shellacking the Cats took on the boards in Gainesville was truly out of character for them compared to their season-long performance.  A bounce back of a 14 rebound edge tonight was a welcome reversion to the mean.

Another highlight:  21-26 from the foul line. That performance was well-balanced, with every player who shot a free throw going no worse than 4-6 on their charity tosses.

A Problem That Won’t Go Away

Making absolutely no contribution to the improved rebounding effort was Monk. For the second straight contest he tallied zero boards, this time in 36 minutes of play. After the Florida loss, that is inexcusable. Since Saturday night there has been much chatter and hand-wringing over his ‘laughing on the bench during a blowout loss’ episode.  In my opinion that was much ado about nothing. Of far greater concern is his season long aversion to getting involved on the glass. This freshman has way too much talent to under-perform in such a key area.

The other glaring negative deserves its own section.

Where’s the D?

It’s a good thing Kentucky had that 16 point halftime lead. Because they were outscored 58-49 in the second half by an LSU squad that has not been an offensive juggernaut. Coming into Tuesday night’s tilt, the visitors had been averaging 75 points per game, 46% field goal shooting and 34% from three point land. The Wildcats allowed LSU to put up 85 points while shooting 50% from the field and 44% from three. More disturbing is the rate at which the Tigers blistered the nets in the second half:  63% from the field and an incredible 73% on threes.

Maybe you write some of that off to the Cats coasting a bit after getting a big lead. But the pucker factor definitely picked up for the big blue faithful in the last few minutes. And second half defense is on a troubling trend.  In the last four games (in which they have gone two and two) Kentucky has allowed an average of 54 second half points. That has to change or there is not going to be a lot of post-season basketball for this team.

What’s Left?

Seven regular season games remain, starting with a visit from Alabama this Saturday. Kentucky has chances to avenge two of their recent losses with home games versus Tennessee and Florida. Vanderbilt also comes to Rupp Arena and there are road trips to Georgia, Missouri and Texas A&M on the docket. The Wildcats have a lot of work to do, especially on the defensive end. Coach Cal’s reboot needs to establish a solid connection during this stretch. Once the calendar flips to March, the Wildcat Blue Nation doesn’t want an unexpected interruption of service.

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