LEXINGTON, Ky. — If you’re looking for positive signs as a young, uneven Kentucky basketball team enters an uncertain postseason, start here: As Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander met with the media Tuesday to talk about their new All-SEC status, both freshmen acknowledged a need (and urgency) to be even better.
“That was probably mostly because of offense,” Knox said of his SEC Freshman of the Year award, which he shared with Alabama star Collin Sexton. “But if I can show that I can play defense, I can take my game to another level.”
Knox averaged 15.7 points and 5.3 rebounds and scored 20-plus nine times — including three of the final four regular-season games and a 34-point outburst in a win at West Virginia — on his way to first-team All-SEC and All-Freshman honors. But his defense has fluctuated between serviceable and non-existent.
It was closer to the latter Saturday at Florida, when the Wildcats (21-10, 10-8 SEC) saw their four-game hot streak snuffed out.
“I don’t think this has been my best defensive season,” Knox admitted Tuesday. “The coaches have really had me watching a lot of film, just making sure that I can get better on the defensive end. That’s something I’ve really got to work on for the rest of this year and my years to come. I’ve just got to make sure that I give everything I’ve got on the defensive end.
“The season is not over. I could really improve it, show people I’ve really been working on it, show people in the tournament — the SEC and NCAA Tournament.”
Like Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander spent little time Tuesday talking about his All-Freshman and second-team All-SEC honors, both richly deserved, focusing instead on how he can help Kentucky, the No. 4 seed at the league tournament this week in St. Louis, put all the pieces together before it’s too late.
“I’m the point guard, the leader. Guys follow my lead, naturally, and I have to lead them in the right direction or else we’ll all look bad,” he said. “I didn’t do too well that last game and I’ll try to fix it for the games coming up.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who wasn’t in the starting lineup early this season, averaged 13.2 points, 4.9 assists, 1.6 steals and shot 40 percent from 3-point range. But he also had 5 turnovers at Florida, continuing a trend in which he’s averaged nearly twice as many turnovers (3.9 vs. 2.1) in UK’s losses as in its wins.
His strength — driving for layups or fouls — is at times a weakness when opponents plan for that and attack it.
“I guess you could say there’s kind of a counterpunch: When they take me away, it’ll open up my teammates more and I’ve got to do a better job of finding them,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I only had 4 assists last game, and that has to come up in order for us to be the best we can be.”
We’ve seen what that looks like, not so long ago when the Wildcats were walloping four straight conference opponents by double digits, and both Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander were big pieces of that surge. So it’s not a stretch to think Kentucky can get back to playing that way before the NCAA Tournament next week.
Especially when the team’s two best players, on a day they could’ve just taken a bow, talked like young men with plenty to prove.
“I knew we’d have some ups and downs. All freshmen have their bumps in the road,” Knox said. “We had our bad times, had our good times, but I wouldn’t trade it for nothing else, wouldn’t trade my teammates for nobody else. I’m glad I came here. I really love the season.
“I think we’re in a great spot right now, but we can still improve and we will the next couple weeks.”