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Young Cats slowly finding their way

Years ago, my father taught me that anything worth having was worth working for. He taught me that while the process working for that something wouldn’t be easy, the final result would be worth the effort.

Slowly but surely, I think the Kentucky Wildcats are figuring these important life lessons out.

After defeating a very good mid-major in UNC-Greensboro Saturday afternoon 78-61 and running their record to 7-1, the #10 Cats are methodically gathering steam heading into a holiday season filled with opportunities for growth (and challenges) including Seton Hall, Louisville, North Carolina, and Utah.

Let’s take a look at two things that point toward some movement in the positive direction for Big Blue.

The Cats are moving the basketball. Against the Spartans, the Cats did an excellent job of sharing and distributing the ball, garnering 12 assists on 28 field goal attempts. UK looked especially effective moving the ball against the 1-2-2 UNCG press, resulting in multiple lobs, dunks, and layups. If anything, these Cats are unselfish and willing to make the extra pass, a trait that will serve them well in the upcoming days.

The Cats are figuring out if they don’t play defense and play with effort, they don’t play. Coach John Calipari has said on multiple occasions that if the young Cats don’t fly around and play at the max effort they won’t be playing much. Coach is holding to his words. Recently sophomore center Nick Richards and sophomore guard Quade Green have seen their minutes reduced and freshman forward EJ Montgomery and freshman guard Ashton Hagans minutes increased. The difference? While the sophomores aren’t providing the Cats with what Calipari is looking for in production, the freshmen are.

There are still two questions that linger with this team though.

Who is “the dog” on this team? In the current seven-game winning streak, the Cats have gotten balanced production from multiple players. Senior forward Reid Travis has been sensational in the post, seeing his averages jump to 14 points and 7 rebounds a night after a 22 point 12 rebound performance against UNCG. Freshman guard Tyler Herro is playing well on both ends of the floor, attacking the rim on offense and being active on defense. Freshman Keldon Johnson has been the steadiest Cat this season, averaging a team-high 16 points per contest. While balance is certainly good, as the games get bigger and the stage widens, UK needs to have that one guy that they can go to and get that leadership needed to guide this young group through the rigors of big nonconference games and SEC play. There certainly are options for that, including PJ Washington, Johnson, Travis, or Herro.

What happens when the Cats are challenged by an opponent who can at least match their size and quickness? Against UNCG, UK was able to overwhelm the Spartans late with their size and athletic advantage and erase a second-half deficit and go on to the win. This has been the mode of operation during this seven-game winning streak. But the teams are coming who can match UK with just as much size and athletes. When that happens, the Cats have to be able to do two things effectively. First, they must defend a lot better than they have in the halfcourt, especially against straight-line drives to the hoop and the three-point shot. If the Cats don’t improve in these areas, they will continue to be exposed and their advantages become null and void. Simply put, if the Cats can’t defend, they can’t win.

So there you have it, the Cats season in a nutshell. No question though, this group of young Wildcats has been uneven in their play to say the very least. For every flash of excellence a flash of mediocrity. But again, that is to be expected with a young basketball team. And again, with every up and down the Cats have had this season, they are riding a seven-game winning streak going into the holidays. That’s not too shabby given the way UK opened up the season (which we won’t talk about.)

Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist located in Speedwell, TN. You can follow Shane on Facebook, on Twitter @shack_daddy_1, or on his website Coach Shack’s Corner at www.wixsite.com/coachshackscorner. He can also be contacted via email at coachshack50@gmail.com.