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By LARRY VAUGHT
If Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison play well, veteran ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale says Kentucky is a “tough team to beat” and as good as any team in the country.
He believes the improved “pyche” the Cats got from beating Louisville Dec. 28 helps and the recent break from games to practice let UK “get back to the gym and work with more positives” going into Southeastern Conference play.
“It starts with perimeter play. Your inside can only take you so far,” Vitale said.
He says the Harrisons need to reduce turnovers, get better shots for teammates and become the key to initiating defensive pressure on the ball.
“Michigan State’s guards are as good any guards in the country. That’s how you win,” Vitale said. “Great guard play the key for Kentucky. Their guard play has to be consistent and do it on a regular basis to be a really good team.”
Vitale says Kentucky’s recruiting class came in with a “lot of ability, lot of fan fare.” He admits many, including him, thought it could be the best recruiting class since 1979.
“But you still have got to play together as a unit, not individuals,” Vitale said. “Wisconsin is so good because they are so unified offensively and defensively. They know how to do the little things — spread the floor, get away from traps, how to use the diagonal pass.
“They are searching for that (at Kentucky). They (the Harrisons) are playing based on skill and ability. They have not been able to develop, but they have things you cannot teach. They can handle, shoot. They have got size, toughness and a little swag. They will be fine. It has just taken a little longer than people expected.”
Vitale says Andrew Harrison, the point guard, needs to improve defensively, understand what is a good shot and how to take advantage of other people on the floor. He noted how seldom UK got the ball inside to Julius Randle in its loss at North Carolina in December.
“They are not selfish. They are good kids. It’s just understanding,” Vitale said. “Point guard, and guard play, is essential on any level. If you are not strong on the perimeter, you are going to struggle against quality teams. They (Kentucky) will overpower a lot of teams that cannot match their size and athleticism.”
Vitale then rattled off a list of teams that included Michigan State, Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona and Syracuse where Kentucky, or any team, would have to “execute well, protect the basketball and get good shots” to win.
Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are “veteran players with great size” that Vitale says could impact the way UK finishes the season, too.
“They are a factor. I think personally, Willie has got to be much more aggressive offensively. There’s no doubt his shot blocking is an incredible plus. If you are playing Kentucky, you better shoot over the top and make 3’s because inside he is going to reject big-time numbers,” Vitale said. “I think he has to be a little bit more of a force in the low post with his size and ability.
“Poythress was big against Louisville. He was aggressive, active and wanted to rebound. He gives them toughness and experience that they need.”