Kentucky Basketball: Keys to Wildcats Becoming Contenders After Slow Start

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2012

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 08:  Julius Mays #34 of the Kentucky Wildcats and Korey Thieleke #21 of the Portland Pilots scramble for a loose ball during the game at Rupp Arena on December 8, 2012 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Considering the Kentucky Wildcats lost two games over the entire season on their way to a National Championship in 2011-12, a 6-3 start to this campaign could have some fans sounding the alarm before the new year even rolls around.

Sure, the Wildcats lost a ton of talent from that two-loss team last season. Anthony Davis was the No. 1 pick in the draft and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 while Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague pushed the number of Kentucky products in the first round to four.

But John Calipari is supposed to reload. That's what he's known for.

Led by another group of hyped recruits, this Wildcats team has failed to get off to the hot start that last season's batch did. However, that doesn't mean that they can't shape themselves into a contender, there's plenty of time before March draws near.

Here's what the Wildcats must do to become a contender.

Increase Focus on Defense

Perhaps the most hyped recruit coming to Kentucky this season was Nerlens Noel.

His defensive ability and body type immediately drew lofty comparisons to Anthony Davis. To this point, he has actually lived up to those expectations. On an individual basis, he has been an incredible defensive force. He's averaging 3.6 blocks per game and 2.7 steals.

Unfortunately, that hasn't meant that the Wildcats are an excellent defensive team.

In each of the Wildcats' losses, the team executed poorly on defense. Against Notre Dame, the defense was torched on the outside (the Irish were 8-of-15 from beyond the arc). Against the Bears, the Wildcats gave up too many easy shots down the stretch.

The Wildcats have gifted defenders, but they haven't gelled like Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis's squad did last season.

Commit to Scoring in the Paint

As it stands, the Wildcats are too reliant on scoring from the perimeter.

Any time you live and die by the three-point ball, you're asking for trouble. In the Wildcats' two most recent losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, they were cold from long distance and paid the price.

Come SEC and NCAA tourney time, there will be nights that the Wildcats can't find the touch from beyond the arc. When those times come, the good teams find ways to succeed by pounding the ball and earning tough points on the inside.

As this young team develops this is an aspect of their game that is bound to mature, but it's something that needs to improve now rather than later.

Running the offense through Alex Poythress would be a great start. His ability to slash in the lane and score has been made apparent and his efficiency makes him a great candidate to have the ball in crunch time.

Improve Point Guard Play

Although Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were the stars of the team last season, the player they may miss most might just be Marquis Teague.

This is a Kentucky team that doesn't have a true point guard. Archie Goodwin has stepped up to fill the position admirably, but he doubles as the team's leading scorer and has turned the ball over (3.2 per game) just about as often as he earns assists (4.4).

Goodwin's explosive scoring ability is great, but he'll either need to develop as a distributor and floor general or be moved off the ball if this team is going to develop into a true contender for the National Championship again.


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