Casey's Corner: Wildcats Show Effort in Opener

South Carolina gave Kentucky all they wanted, no doubt. Overall, Kentucky had a pretty good game that would often translate to an easier win than what they were rewarded. Kelenna Azubuike, leading the way with 21 points for Kentucky, also connected on four of his six three-point field goal attempts. Carolina's 50% from the arc helped them to a 41-35 first half lead sparked by an amazing single half performance from Carlos Powell.

Second half, different story, which gave Kentucky the opportunity for a 79-75 victory over the Gamecocks. In the second half, Kelenna Azubuike stepped up to only allow 2 points from Powell. Defense out beyond the arc was also intensified, reducing the South Carolina long distance connection percentage to only 20% for the half.

Each team seemed to dominate in a number of areas. Dave Odom, head coach of the Gamecocks, was quoted prior to the game as saying that Kentucky is extremely deep with the opportunity to give an opponent a number of different looks. Effectively, Kentucky's bench was held to only 12 points for the game, giving up 25 to the Gamecock bench. The bench domination, while an area of concern for the future, was offset by Kentucky's nine steals followed by a 21-5 edge in points off of turnovers. Three of those steals were credited to the freshman point guard, Rajon Rondo.

Kentucky also played well in transition, gathering 10 fast break points while getting back well on defense only allowing 2 from South Carolina.

Another strength for Kentucky, not surprisingly in this game, was the ability to attack the basket and get to the free throw line; however, a man's work is only half done when he gets to the line. The Wildcats are simply going to have to connect on more than 59% of their attempts if they want to win consistently this season, especially in the postseason.

Some individual play also was of note for Kentucky. Rajon Rondo was no big surprise, but he had 11 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in 32 minutes of action in helping to dispel the whispers that Tubby Smith will not play a freshman. Simply put, the kid is everywhere; and he managed to do it with only 2 turnovers.

Surprisingly, Patrick Sparks was charged with six turnovers. He did manage to get 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists; however, he's going to have to be more consistent taking care of the basketball to continue to be considered the team leader night in and night out. At the same time, he certainly is exceeding the expectations of many fans and, er, the fans of another state school.

Another night of Kentucky basketball, and my wife says again, "Hayes didn't do much."

Yes, he did. He got another double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. I don't know if I have ever seen a player put up stats as quietly as Chuck. As often as he is not noticed by many people watching Kentucky games, he seems to have quite a following among the true fans of college basketball. It's a shame to think that he won't be missed by many people until he is already gone.

Randolph Morris is certainly developing fast and in a scary way. Against an admitting undersized South Carolina team, he still managed to connect on 5 of his 6 field goal attempts. Most importantly, though, he is beginning to move the way he needs to in order to be successful. He also now seems to realize the speed at which he needs to play to be a good college basketball player. As he puts these things together, he's going to be scary the rest of the season. Of course, this is assuming he stops getting into foul trouble and starts blocking out more often. All that aside, the big man is coming along nicely.

All in all, Kentucky answers its first and one of its biggest challenges in conference play. A team must hold serve on its home floor to lead a conference, and that's not always an easy task when the Gamecocks are coming to town. Compound that with the fact that this is the first conference game ever for three of Kentucky's starting five; then, you have a challenge on your hands. Kentucky did it, and I'm not sure this is a team they would have beaten in November.

While everyone congratulates the Wildcats on both their win and their progression so far, they must get right back to work. The Kansas Jayhawks will be coming to town on Sunday, and Rupp Arena will be rocking. Until then, keep talking about the Cats, fans. They deserve it.

Wildcats 79, Gamecocks 75.

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