John Clay: Are Cats getting better or is SEC too weak to tell?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014 

By the looks of things Saturday, oh yeah, Kentucky's rolling now.

Willie Cauley-Stein returned to being Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrisons were humming and the talent was jumping and the Cats stretched it out in the second half to thump visiting Georgia 79-54 before a never-mind-the-snow crowd of 23,376 in Rupp Arena.

John Calipari's team improved to 15-4 overall and 5-1 in the conference and yet there is this kernel of doubt that keeps blurting the same troublesome question.

Are the Cats really making progress, or is the SEC just that bad?

Tough to tell.

No doubt there are more sweet sensations than even this time a month ago. Since losing at North Carolina on Dec. 14, the Cats have won seven of eight games, the lone loss being that overtime heartbreaker at Arkansas in which no one remembered to block out Michael Qualls, he of the game-ending follow-dunk.

Even Calipari, often a hard coach to please, admits the mistake count is declining. There's more ball movement on offense. Fewer players are stopping fewer times on defense. Execution and decision-making are on the upswing.

Cauley-Stein had been the most recent mystery. The 7-foot sophomore was slumping seriously, scoring all of three points and blocking all of two shots over 46 minutes his last three games. His changing hair-color notwithstanding, he just didn't look like Willie.

Saturday, Big Willie Style pulled on his headband and returned to form — eight points, six blocks, six steals.

"Active," he said afterward when asked to judge his performance.

And yet, that upgrade was accomplished against a Georgia team that was missing injured guards Kenny Gaines and Juwan Parker, absences that caused Georgia Coach Mark Fox to play certain Bulldogs in unusual spots.

"It impacted the game, but it's part of it," Fox said. "You've got to deal with injury."

"He played a lineup he's never played at Georgia," Calipari countered. "He played like four centers on the court at one time. They had a chance. It shows you the job he's doing with his team."

Or does it show you what sort of job the SEC is doing in basketball? After all, heading into Saturday, computer whiz Jeff Sagarin had Georgia ranked as the 135th-best team in the country. Tempo-free stats whiz Ken Pomeroy had Georgia ranked 118th on his dream database. And yet the Bulldogs were 4-1 in the SEC.

Let's be honest. So far, the conference looks like Florida, Kentucky and not much else. (Ole Miss might be the exception.) And the Cats and Gators don't meet until Feb. 15 before the ESPN College GameDay cameras in Rupp.

Sagarin ranks the SEC seventh in overall hoops strength behind the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, ACC and Atlantic 10. Half the league's 14 teams are ranked 100 or lower. Superpowers they're not.

Even when Georgia was at full strength it lost by 11 to Georgia Tech, by 12 to Davidson, by eight to Nebraska, by 18 to George Washington, by 22 at Florida — a game it trailed 36-16 at the half.

Kentucky led the Dawgs 34-22 at the half on Saturday, its biggest lead at intermission since the Robert Morris game (44-20) back on Nov. 17. And it should be noted that UK's current three-game win streak was accomplished all in the friendly confines connected to the Lexington Center.

Now, the Cats pack their bags for the road. Four of the next five are away from the friendly confines, starting with a trip to LSU on Tuesday night.

"Again, I'm sure it's some shirt night. White, purple, it'll be something," Calipari quipped.

But the coach is smart enough to know, despite the wins, despite the progress, it has a way to go.

"Will we be disciplined enough to be special?" Calipari asked. "Will we become the team and have the discipline it takes to really make a run to do something unique and special? We'll see."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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