UK's slow starts an open-ended question
After a Kentucky men’s basketball season largely defined by close losses, the Cats altered the arc of their season in the final home games of the year by prevailing when pushed to the wall by Florida and Vanderbilt.
John Calipari’s 2016-17 Cats? Time will tell.
For the 2010-11 Cats led by Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, however, it is indisputable that tough home wins over Florida and Vandy in the regular season’s closing days were the launching pad that ignited UK on a trek from a so-so year to the Final Four.
It is interesting how the current Cats and the 2010-11 edition compare and contrast.
Like the 2016-17 Wildcats, the ’10-11 team had three standout freshmen. On talent level, I’d give a slight edge to the current trio of Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo over Knight, Jones and Doron Lamb.
The primary issue that has dogged the 2016-17 Cats — struggling to contain straight-line, dribble penetration — is not the problem that plagued the 2010-11 Wildcats.
In 2010-11, an inability to close out tight games on the road vexed the Cats. Calipari’s second UK team lost by two at North Carolina, by seven at Georgia, by two at Alabama, two at Mississippi, two at Florida, four at Vanderbilt and one (in overtime) at Arkansas.
Following the latter loss, popular opinion coalesced that Kentucky lacked the fortitude to be a Final Four team.
Yet UK came home to Rupp and won a slugfest with No. 13 Florida behind 24 points from Miller. No. 21 Vanderbilt next came to Lexington and took Kentucky to the wire, but the Cats gutted out a 68-66 win.
Seemingly buoyed by finally coming through in close games with good teams, the 2010-11 Cats closed out their season by at last winning a tough road game, 64-58, at Tennessee.
You know what happened from there.
The Wildcats rolled through the SEC Tournament. They got two game-winning, last-second shots from Knight to escape Princeton and take down No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament. By beating North Carolina in the East Region finals, they ended a Kentucky Final Four drought that had run since 1998.
Heck, had UK made its free throws (4-for-12) in a gut-wrenching 56-55 loss to Connecticut in the Final Four, the 2011 Cats (29-9) would almost certainly have cut down the nets that matter.
In the past few days, the 2016-17 Cats (25-5) have also claimed challenging home wins over Florida and Vanderbilt.
Against the then-No. 13 Gators last Saturday, Kentucky dug out of an eight-point, second-half deficit to win 76-66 behind Monk’s explosiveness (scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half) and Adebayo’s improving all-around play (18 points, 15 rebounds).
On Senior Night against a Vandy team that had won four straight, UK fell behind 25-6 Tuesday, and cut the lead to three early in the second half only to fall behind by 13 again. Yet Monk (27 points), Adebayo (16) and Fox (13) rallied Kentucky to a 73-67 victory.
Will the tough, home wins over Florida and Vanderbilt have the same galvanizing effect on the current Cats that similar victories had on the 2010-11 Wildcats? That question ultimately gets answered in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky not letting down and taking care of business in its final road trip of the season Saturday against Texas A&M — a team UK walloped 100-58 in Rupp on Jan. 3 — would at least be a positive early indicator.