Kentucky's win over Illinois-Chicago was dealt with last week, even though it came on a Sunday, so for purposes of providing weekly coverage of Kentucky basketball, this was a one-game week, the Monday-through-Sunday period being the seven-day window, as opposed to Sunday through Saturday.
When one looks into this seven-day window -- and sees UK's 79-70 win over Harvard as the only basketball game on the slate -- what emerges in the viewfinder?
A complicated picture, but ultimately a good one.
At this time last year, Kentucky was a well-developed offensive team and a bad defensive team. The sense one got from the Wildcats entering this December is that Big Blue was more likely to round into a strong defensive team, while the offense would be the bigger project for John Calipari. That might still be true, but Saturday's win over Harvard in Rupp Arena showed a different side of this team.
Harvard, though under .500, should be a very good Ivy League team by the end of the season. Tommy Amaker has pulled in quality recruits and is raising the bar for how Ivy programs target upper-tier basketball talent. The Crimson represented a step up in weight class for Kentucky relative to its previous week of cupcakes. Harvard still does not have the biggest bruisers or the most special specimen, but it is definitely a tougher basketball challenge. Midway through the second half, at 13:43, the visitors from New England trailed by only five points, at 55-50. Was Kentucky going to remain immersed in a desperate fight to the finish, or -- like an upper-level team -- were the Wildcats going to flex their muscles and show their opponent who was boss?
Kentucky found a way to take the latter path.
The Wildcats -- over the next five and a half minutes -- uncorked a 17-2 run to gain a 72-52 lead. They lost some of that lead in the final minutes, but that's an overblown point for anyone worried about it. Harvard -- or any opponent -- slicing a large deficit to nine points in the final minute is not a cause for concern. Down five or six points with the ball? Maybe... but not what Harvard did.
What was especially impressive about the 17-2 run was the composition of points -- more precisely, the source of each tally for Big Blue.
Only two of those 17 points came from a jump shot. The other 15 points came from a mixture of foul shots, layups or dunks. That's winning basketball. Kentucky attacked the basket and did not settle for jumpers against a physically inferior team it should be able to overwhelm. If, at other times in this game, Kentucky struggled with the three-point shot, the Wildcats didn't keep hoisting. Calipari's kids sought better shots and made a commitment to putting pressure on Harvard's defense. That's March-level basketball IQ in early December, a great sign for the road ahead.
One could point to Kentucky's 2-for-14 clip from three-point range and regard it as a problem. The other view is that UK limited its three-point shooting volume to 14 shots.
Kentucky fans don't want to remember it, but it is worth remembering: In the 2010 regional final loss to West Virginia, Kentucky -- despite having a big, powerful frontline and a point guard (John Wall) who could get to the basket -- launched 32 triples and made only four. That was the difference between going to the Final Four and staying home. Had Kentucky taken just 14 threes instead of 32, it would have met Duke in a national semifinal in Indianapolis. Therefore, Kentucky's judicious use of the three -- with Kevin Knox (seven tries) being the only high-volume three-point shooter on Saturday -- represents an excellent, limited use of the long ball. That's a great thing for Calipari to take from this game.
On defense, curiously enough, Kentucky was sufficient, but Harvard showed how -- and why -- the idea of defensive improvement should not be taken for granted. Kentucky should still be a good defensive team because of its size and length, but that can't be a crutch for this team. That's the challenge for Calipari to continue to address in the coming weeks, especially after final exams.
When players know they have physical attributes and elements of athletic prowess that will enable them to win one-on-one battles, they can assume that their gifts will naturally take over. This means players fail to develop the right habits. They become bystanders instead of fiercely and actively working for small but important measures of positioning and leverage on the floor. They don't finish plays or get to spots with the vigilance and consistency good players demonstrate at all times.
This was evident in two things: first, Harvard's 12-of-28 three-point-shooting line. The Crimson -- especially Seth Towns (6 of 7 threes, 25 points) -- got comfortable behind the arc. Kentucky will have to work harder at closing down shooters. Second, Kentucky allowed a lot of drives to the paint. At times, Kentucky effectively challenged shots, but on other occasions, Harvard players -- especially Bryce Aiken and Chris Lewis -- combined to hit just 5 of 24 shots, many of them open six-footers near the lower right block or the right baseline. Harvard wore out that area in the second half but could not finish plays.
It's true that Kentucky's length prevented Harvard getting all the way to the rim, but a six-foot shot is not one of the mid-range shots viewed as "unwise" in the modern era of basketball analytics. Kentucky needs to push opponents out of the low-block and baseline areas, forcing opponents to shoot 16-footers and not six- or eight-foot shots.
Kentucky took a step forward on offense (only 10 turnovers in addition to the low number of threes) but took a small step back on defense. Everything is a work in progress, but Kentucky-Harvard unearthed some plot twists which will offer a reminder: The journey to March Madness is not linear. It takes many twists and turns. Everything, though, can be the source of a lesson which leads to improvement.