If Kentucky’s too close for comfort 76-69 victory over a fearless Florida Atlantic team had come in an NCAA Tournament game, I’m sure the phrase “survive and advance” would have been bandied about quite a bit, because that sure is what that game felt like. Florida Atlantic hung around early with some baskets on less than solid Kentucky defense and some incredible scoring by Paul Graham. As the game progressed, confidence on the part of FAU built steadily and the action remained tight, culminating in a 51-46 FAU lead with 14:36 to play.
Eventually the inside tandem of Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson allowed the Cats to make a long overdue run. Even when that did happen, Florida Atlantic did not back down, cutting UK’s 68-59 lead to 68-66 with under three minutes left. Patrick Patterson again steadied the Cats, helping to rebuild the lead.
Unfortunately, it was not an NCAA Tournament game. It was a December 27 home game against a 4-8 opponent on the heels of Kentucky’s most consistent stretch of play so far this season.
I was disappointed by the way UK played tonight. The defense was way below the level that it needs to be, and also where it had been the last few times out. The Cats did not consistently respond well to FAU’s defensive approach of focusing on Jodie Meeks. The second half was the first time so far this season that a team had chosen to try to stop Jodie before Patterson.
There were stretches when they hammered the ball to a single covered Patterson and when Perry Stevenson found the gaps in the defense for easy buckets, but not consistently enough. Having two superb offensive players like Meeks and Patterson is going to force teams to make a strategic decision about which to be primarily intent on stopping, and the Cats have learned how to get things done when teams choose Patterson. They haven’t yet learned how to do the same when teams focus on Jodie.
Part of the onus for this failing is on Coach Gillispie. Perry Stevenson was very effective for much of the game, but he does not provide the outside shooting threat that Jorts Harrellson does. For that reason, I think Jorts has to play more than the 5 minutes he did in the second half.
Michael Porter has shown himself to be a serviceable facilitator when UK can get both Patterson and Meeks going, and he made some good passes in the second half but he provides almost no offensive punch. DeAndre Liggins is not a big outside threat, but what he can do is get some easy baskets in transition, take the ball to the basket in the half court, and get to the free throw line. I think Liggins should have played more than 6 minutes (to Porter’s 16) in the second half in order to get some more offense on the floor.
Another point which I alluded to is the transition game. I believe that the Cats have to push the ball more when an opponent places such an emphasis on stopping Jodie Meeks. Jodie is one of the Cats best players in the open floor: his speed is so valuable. They need to get him some easy baskets before the defense has a chance to set itself. Galloway and Liggins are two players who need to be on the floor for Kentucky to play an up and down game.
It would be typical of me (and typical of a UK fan) to make a close win like this all about what Kentucky did well and didn’t do well, but the fact of the matter is that Florida Atlantic deserves a lot of credit for how well they played. Mike Jarvis did an excellent job of putting his players in good places to succeed, and Paul Graham and Shavar Richardson thrived in a very difficult environment for an opponent.
Three quick side notes: first, one positive thing about UK not occupying the place in the college basketball consciousness that UK fans crave (by the way, I think we’re on our way to changing that) is that this kind of game flies under the radar. UK just picked up another win today, moving to 10-3 (probably a win over CMU and a win of over UofL from being ranked), even if it was without the style points of the last couple. Second, you have to feel good for Landon Slone, who was on the floor for a career high 25 minutes as a freshman walk on. He must be practicing extremely well, and he played the best defense on Graham of all the Cats. If he had just a bit more confidence in his stroke right now, he could be very valuable. Third, did you see West Virginia rocked previously unbeaten and 13th ranked Ohio State by a score of 76-48 on the road? That win in Vegas is going to be one the Cats can hang their hats on all season in a down year for the SEC.
Even though I have talked about the offense and substitution patterns ad nauseam, I think the most concerning part of this afternoon’s game was the general inability to play one on one defense. I know that having Kevin Galloway (who sat the entire first half due to a coach’s decision) and Ramon Harris (who started the game but looked well below 100%) likely would have helped the cause, but the pressure and swarming nature that the Cats have shown of late was just not there. I imagine Gillispie may mention this at practice tomorrow and Monday (understatement of the day).
Time for the grades, which are pretty good, and I think you can draw two conclusions from that: first, that the categories aren’t perfect, and second, that FAU played well.
Turnovers/point guard play: B
If you had told me the Cats would turn the ball over 7 times the whole game and that no player would have more than 1, I would not have believed that the Cats would have only won by 7. The Cats did take good care of the ball, but there just were not as many opportunities to turn it over as in the previous games. UK had 64 possessions compared with the 82 they averaged in their last 2 games. Florida Atlantic did a good job of taking the air out of the ball and limiting UK’s chances at offensive rebounds. The reason I am not giving a higher grade to UK in this category is because the game called for UK’s point guards to step up and be scoring threats, but they were unable to do so.
Kentucky won the rebounding battle 34-25, but they only were able to get 8 offensive rebounds, and with a struggling offense that missed 16 of 18 3’s, they need to do better than that.
Getting the ball to Patterson: A
Pat shot 16 times, and scored 27 points. He was the focus all day and did an excellent job of taking advantage of the space that Jodie helped create for him.