John Clay: Positives abound in looking at Calipari's Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014 

Kentucky center Dakari Johnson grabbed a rebound in front of Mississippi center Dwight Coleby and forward Anthony Perez..

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Let's change gears.

So much has been written, said and tweeted about what's wrong with this Kentucky basketball team — an 18-5 overall and 8-2 SEC team — let's focus for a change on what's right.

Let's look for the positives.

Of UK's five losses, not one was by double figures. OK, maybe the LSU loss should have been double figures. The Tigers led by as many as 15 in the second half. The Cats did close the gap late, however, and ended up losing by five points, though to be fair it wasn't really that close.

Back in November, the Cats trailed Michigan State by 13 with 11:31 to go, but rallied to tie with 4:48 remaining before losing. They were tied 44-44 with North Carolina at the 14:14 mark before losing. They led Baylor by nine points with 13:07 left before losing. They lost at Arkansas on a last-second follow dunk in overtime.

Compare that to some other Top 25 teams. No. 6 Villanova lost at home to Creighton by 28. No. 7 Kansas lost at Texas by 12. No. 8 Duke lost at Clemson by 13. No. 9 Michigan State lost at home to North Carolina by 14. No. 10 Cincinnati lost at SMU by 21 on Saturday night. No. 11 Iowa State lost at West Virginia by 25 on Monday night.

Another positive: This is a very good offensive team. According to Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats, Kentucky ranks No. 7 nationally in offensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is generally a better Final Four indicator, but there is a school of thought that while defense is important during the regular season, advancement in tournament play requires putting the ball in the basket.

Look at the teams that made last year's Final Four. Pomeroy ranked national runner-up Michigan as the nation's most efficient offensive team. National champion Louisville ranked fourth.

That leads to the fact Kentucky continues to lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 42.5 percent of its chances to get an offensive board. As a matter of reference, Louisville was 14th in the nation in that category last season. Kentucky ranked 17th nationally in offensive rebound percentage the title year of 2012.

According to the RPI, Kentucky has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the country. And the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has historically put a lot of stock in a team's strength of schedule.

And speaking of schedule, there is still a trio of opportunities for this team to rack up impressive wins. There are two games with third-ranked Florida, the team that ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg called the best team in the country on Tuesday. The Gators come to Rupp this Saturday. UK finishes the regular season at Gainesville on March 8.

The Cats also play at Ole Miss next Wednesday, which will be a difficult game. A sweep of the league's third-best team would enhance the Kentucky résumé.

Here's one more: This team has the one attribute last year's team sorely lacked. That would be depth.

Last Saturday provided an obvious and shining example. Just when you had written off the rest of Jon Hood's UK career, the senior provided the Cats a much-needed jump start in the first half at Starkville. As freshman guard Andrew Harrison encountered foul trouble, senior Jarrod Polson provided 30 steady minutes.

On the flip side, as sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein's play has turned inconsistent, freshman Dakari Johnson has stepped in and played well.

"Very proud of Dakari as a staff," UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said Tuesday. "He's grown so much. He's running the floor very well. He's taking the role of being a starter. He's looking up to the challenge. As long as he keeps getting better and keeps fighting, he'll do well for us."

If the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups — and it is — then Calipari has more ways to match up. In a pinch, he can play Julius Randle at center. He can swing James Young between guard and forward. He can call on Polson's calming influence. He can bring Alex Poythress off the bench early or late.

Those are positives.

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

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