One look at the stat sheet will tell you exactly what this Wildcat team can be.
Four players in double figures. Willie Cauley-Stein with 12 hard-fought boards and seven blocked shots on defense. Sixteen points, eight rebounds and six assists from the oft-doubted Ryan Harrow. A smoking 50.8 percent from the floor, bolstered by 41.2 percent from deep. They beat a good Missouri team 90-83 to move into a tie with Alabama for second place in the SEC.
But, and there’s always a “but”, it took an overtime period to get it done, at home. And the Wildcats were bedeviled yet again by poor free throw shooting, hitting just 63.9 percent in the game. Prior to overtime, that number was closer to 53 percent.
It’s so obvious that the weaknesses in Kentucky’s execution are mental mistakes made by young players. If last year was the upside of recruiting young for the Wildcats, this year has been the downside.
And yet, without a doubt, this team is still in the hunt. Callow Kentucky teams of recent vintage have always had a veteran presence to rally around when things get tough, and this year is no different. The brightest spot for Kentucky tonight was reserved for fifth-year senior Julius Mays, who scored 24 points – his highest in a Wildcat uniform – and cobbled together a very efficient night’s work. He even hit eight of his nine free throws.
Mays has been well-traveled in college hoops, playing his first two seasons at NC State, then spending a year at Wright State, finishing his degree, and moving on to Kentucky for his final season. Experienced transfers had a major impact for both teams, in fact.
Watching Missouri/Kentucky, can’t help but notice major impact of grad transfer rule (Oriakhi and Mays). Both guys crucial.
— Josh and Mike (@bigtengeeks) February 24, 2013
Mays can score – he did it in bunches at Wright State, where he established his standing career high of 33 points. It’s nice to know he can do so when called upon. But his real value to this squad of uber-talented tyros is as a combination Yoda/Dumbledore/Tim Duncan figure – the wizened vet who can show toughness (Mays stayed in the game when leg cramps made it difficult for him to get up and down the court), cool-headedness (making those free throws) and guile (inducing fellow fifth-year Oriakhi to foul out) when needed.
Haters gonna hate, but the NCAA tournament would be poorer without Kentucky in it. If Mays can lead his young charges to a couple of road wins, and a decent run in the SEC tourney, we won’t have to find out what that would look like.
Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.