Saturday, February 03, 2007

Into The Stretch

Kentucky and Illinois make the turn into their February regular-season stretch runs today -- Cats in Fayetteville and Illini at home against the stinkin' Gophers.

What to say about each?

Kentucky is still a work in progress, alternately infuriating and enrapturing. After taking advantage of something of a scheduled break to win 11 straight, culminating with an 87-49 dismantling of South Carolina in Columbia on the WWL in S, they have now hit the mountain. Head on in the case of a second-straight home loss to a resurgent Vandy (who prior to last year had never beaten UK in Rupp Arena) and a dispiriting OT loss at Georgia after blowing a 17-point first half lead.

A home win over a hobbled and reeling Tennessee really answered no questions -- all of which remain as they tip off in Fayetteville this afternoon:
  • What has happened to Randolph Morris? After a string of dominating games, the last three have featured a return of foul trouble with a resultant timidity of play -- 10 points and 4 rebounds per game over the last three, and no offensive rebounds in the last two. The offense had been on a real uptick, mainly due to the evolving inside-outside combination of Morris and Joe Crawford. Crawford has continued his part of the bargain (19.5 ppg in conference play), but the Cats need both legs in order to move their typically misbegotten offense forward.
  • What happened to the defensive consistency? As with most of Tubby Smith's UK teams, this one will only go as far as its defensive consistency will take it. There is just not enough offensive firepower to outscore good teams. Their record in games when the opponent is held below 1 point per possession? 14-0. When the opponent scores better than 1 per? 2-5 (0-2 in conference games). Keep the opponent's offensive efficiency down, and there's still enough offense to win.
  • Is this the worst senior class in UK history? Probably, yes. The team right now consists of a junior core (Morris, Crawford, Ramel Bradley) getting a little help from the freshmen (some Jasper, a bit of Stevenson, but mostly Jodie Meeks), and next to nothing from the non-existent sophmore and head-shakingly awful senior classes. Sheray Thomas has actually contributed in some degree recently (7 boards and 5 assists against Tennessee), but Bobby Perry continues to produce nothing (38% shooting and 4 rpg from a starting power forward is as close to nothing as you can wring out of the position), and Lukasz Orbzut has responded to Morris' recent foul troubles by playing 8 minutes in the last 3 games. Not a good sign.
All of which makes today's game rather important. Caught in a mix with Georgia and Vandy a couple of games behind Florida, a loss to a member of the SEC's weaker sisters (no one in the SEC West even has a winning record in conference) would mean a complete loss of touch with the Gators. On the other hand, a road win at this point would be huge and enormously welcome.

As for the Illini, tonight's breather against Minnesota will bring them back to even in the Big 11. With a large number of very winnable games left on the schedule (6 of the last 7 by my count), 22 wins and 10-6 in the conference is still a possibility. That clearly will depend upon the defense coming to play every night, though, because this team is an offensive basket case -- as in unable to put the ball in one. With Jamar Smith's jumper gone AWOL and Brian Randle still hobbling, the offense has come down to what Shaun Pruitt can give them in the post (usually quite a bit) and what Chester Frazier can generate from pounding the dribble until the shot clock has gone under 5. As offensive strategies go, this latter is somewhat akin to waiting on the divine wind -- while it may take out a cruiser now and again it's no strategy to win the war.


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