Which UK Players Have Held Wildcats Back?
Assistant coach Kenny Payne said Tuesday that the No. 14 Wildcats still have not had a game this year—not recently, anyway, against quality competition—in which every player was in the groove on the same day. Willie Cauley-Stein has gone in and out of a funk throughout the SEC schedule, and some days, guys just don’t play well. Payne said if even just five or six players—Kentucky’s regular rotation is sitting around eight players right now—played well on any given night, the Wildcats could have the breakthrough that hasn’t happened yet. Just one game.
“And if we do it consistently, it’s scary,” Payne said.
Cauley-Stein said it starts with defense, that playing with energy on defense would naturally translate to playing with energy on offense, and that would create rhythm for the Wildcats on offense and eliminate a lot of those pesky transition baskets their defense has become known for creating. It happened Saturday against Mississippi State, and it could happen Wednesday against Auburn’s high-scoring guard pair of Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell.
Whatever it starts with, it hasn’t happened yet, according to both Payne and Cauley-Stein. Payne said he thought the closest Kentucky has come to having all its players thrive in one game was the 84-79 road win over Missouri on Feb. 1. Looking at the SEC schedule, and in the interest of brevity but not highlighting negativity, what players have kept the Wildcats from being entirely on the same page one game at a time?
JAN. 8: KENTUCKY 85, MISSISSIPPI STATE 63
Not that it mattered a ton in the SEC opener, but Aaron Harrison was not sharp the first time around against Mississippi State. He was 1 of 5 from the field and finished with five points, three assists, three turnovers and four fouls.
JAN. 11: KENTUCKY 71, VANDERBILT 62
James Young was essentially a non-presence in the game, finishing 2 of 10 from the floor and scoring six points.
JAN. 14: ARKANSAS 87, KENTUCKY 85 (OVERTIME)
This was the first of Cauley-Stein’s utterly poor performances. He played 18 minutes and had four points, six rebounds and one block. He fouled out, and Kentucky largely went with a smaller lineup anchored in the paint by Julius Randle and Alex Poythress.
JAN. 18: KENTUCKY 74, TENNESSEE 66
The struggles got worse for Cauley-Stein, who played 19 minutes, missed all five attempts from the field, and finished with three rebounds and one block. Poythress was not at his best, either, and nobody could do anything to stop Jarnell Stokes from getting his 20 points and 15 rebounds.
JAN. 21: KENTUCKY 68, TEXAS A&M 51
Cauley-Stein was the main no-show, finishing with one point, one rebound and no blocks in nine minutes.
JAN. 25: KENTUCKY 79, GEORGIA 54
This was the first game of the league schedule in which each player with significant floor time played reasonably well, which would go a long way in explaining the 25-point win.
JAN. 28: LSU 87, KENTUCKY 82
Julius Randle had six points, five rebounds and three turnovers; Cauley-Stein fell firmly back into his funk; Aaron Harrison had only made two shots before the final minute or so of desperation time; none of the Wildcats’ frontcourt knew how to guard Johnny O’Bryant. It was a mess all around.
FEB. 1: KENTUCKY 84, MISSOURI 79
Dakari Johnson got his first career start in place of the struggling Cauley-Stein, and he got in foul trouble early and stayed there. Cauley-Stein had perhaps his worst game of the entire slump off the bench, finishing scoreless and rebound-less in seven minutes. Neither Harrison twin did much defensively to stop Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28 points).
FEB. 4: KENTUCKY 80, OLE MISS 64
Johnson was probably the weakest link in his second start, finishing with five points in nine minutes, but he also had four blocks.
FEB. 8: KENTUCKY 69, MISSISSIPPI STATE 59
Andrew Harrison was largely ineffective, and he finished with five points before fouling out with more than five minutes to play. Jarrod Polson’s solid play in his place stabilized UK.
It’s a brief look and one far from perfect, but with the exception of Cauley-Stein’s slump, it seems like several different players—pretty much every main-rotation player, at some point or another—have kept Kentucky from achieving the whole performance Payne said the coaching staff is seeking.
Photo: Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said he’s still looking for Kentucky’s first full team performance this season. (File photo by James Pennington)