Kentucky clearly controlled the final 20 minutes of its 74-66 SEC home win against Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, but the No. 13 Wildcats are still searching for some consistency in a couple of different ways.
As Saturday’s game showed, the Wildcats can alternate a half between Julius Randle (first half) and the Harrison brothers (second half) playing well on the offensive end, but is that going to be good enough to beat the big dogs?
In the first half, Randle scored 16 of his 18 points and matched a strong effort from Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes on the interior as the Wildcats led 34-32 at the half. But in the second half — as Randle struggled to find his first-half ways — the Harrison brothers took over.
The freshmen guard duo combined for 17 of the Wildcats’ first 29 points in the second half and both twins looked confident playing on the offensive side and looking for their shot. Andrew Harrison finished with a career-high 26 points, while Aaron also tallied 14 points. The duo put up nine consecutive points at one point for Kentucky in the second half as Randle cheered from the bench.
But when Randle checked back into the game for the stretch run, the Wildcats faced similar problems that have plagued them all season. Kentucky went to a lot of isolation-based offensive sets, with Randle or one of the Twins taking turns attacking, and the ball wasn’t moving like it was without Randle in the game.
Kentucky’s offense struggled to find itself at that point, but credit all three freshmen and the rest of John Calipari’s bunch for an inspired defensive effort, especially in the second half. The Wildcats collapsed their defense in the paint and forced Tennessee’s unproven perimeter scoring, outside of Jordan McRae, to beat them and Tennessee couldn’t do it.
The Volunteers shot poorly from the perimeter — going 2-for-13 from three-point range — and despite heavily out-rebounding Kentucky 39-24, Tennessee could never get over the hump as they struggled to find scoring outside of Stokes (20 points, 15 rebounds) and McRae (17 points). Kentucky shooting 23-of-24 from the free throw line certainly isn’t going to make things easier, either.
Kentucky will still need to figure out how to use the Harrisons and Randle together on offense going forward and they’ll also need to get more of a consistent effort from Willie Cauley-Stein (zero points).
The CBS commentary crew talked about Cauley-Stein apologizing to teammates following the Arkansas loss and how the sophomore had a great practice on Thursday. That apology clearly didn’t mean anything as Jarnell Stokes badly outplayed Cauley-Stein and the sophomore center should apologize to his teammates for a second straight game following another no-show performance.
James Young is a great complimentary kickout on offense and Cauley-Stein can play to his strengths of catching lobs and hunting offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats will not beat the best teams in the country until their three isolation-based main offensive players — the Harrisons and Julius Randle — figure out how to move the ball well and shift the defense around from side-to-side to make things easier on themselves.
We’re halfway through January and the Kentucky offense does look better, but they still need to improve a lot to hang with the best teams in the country at the end of the season.