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How Kentucky ended up stumbling into February
The ceiling for the 2013-14 Kentucky team continues to be a moving target.
Before the season, Kentucky's fantastic freshmen had Big Blue Nation thinking national championship and quietly talking about running the table.
The gaudy record was put in doubt by the third game of the season with a loss to Michigan State. That the Spartans were a veteran team also ranked in the top three raised few red flags. Then came losses to Baylor and North Carolina, talented but inconsistent squads. The 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28 seemed to be a turning point, at least until SEC play started.
Then came the SEC speed bumps. Arkansas was a fluky game in officiating, lost on a last-second putback. Few teams win in Fayetteville, anyway.
Losing at LSU on Tuesday isn’t totally embarrassing on paper, but Kentucky never led, rarely defended and often looked disinterested. In short, it was a game that could be a harbinger of things to come or a wake-up call.
No, Kentucky’s not on the NCAA Tournament bubble quite yet, but the Wildcats have only two RPI top-50 wins and four losses to teams ranked between No. 51-100. Kentucky has hardly looked the part of a team capable of winning four to six NCAA Tournament games in a row.
So what’s gone wrong and how worried should Kentucky fans be with six weeks to Selection Sunday?
What’s Gone Wrong at Kentucky?
Kentucky doesn’t always do that team thing
Only a few weeks ago, John Calipari reiterated that his team is full of freshmen who at this time last year were the centerpiece of their teams. Against college veterans, one freshman can’t win a game on his own. That’s valid — Kansas had a learning curve with its young roster, and Duke’s Jabari Parker had his own adjustment period after storming out of the gates. But it’s nearly February, and Kentucky’s rookies don’t always look like they enjoy playing together. This is a cliche argument, but instances like this only reinforce the lack of chemistry. For example:
(h/t @DrewFranklinKSR of KentuckySportsRadio.com).
The “What are you doing?” factor
Kentucky’s fate likely was sealed in the 87-82 loss to LSU in the final seconds even after three Aaron Harrison 3-point baskets helped cut a 10-point deficit to five. But with 11 seconds left, Kentucky never fouled, allowing LSU to dribble the clock out. ESPN color commentator Dan Dakich was exasperated. “What are you doing?” Dakich asked in disbelief. Before the late-game blunder, Dakich also was critical of Kentucky’s effort, saying “LSU is competing and Kentucky is just playing.” The statement summed up the loss all too well. Not that Calipari would disagree: “I'm still having to coach too much,” he said after the Texas A&M win on Jan. 21. “Having to get on guys too much.”
Point guard play is lacking
Andrew Harrison was the top-ranked point guard in the 2013 signing class, but he’s hardly looked the part this season. Harrison had one assist and four turnovers against LSU. He’s averaging four assists per game in SEC play, good for fourth in the league, but Harrison hasn't been a facilitator. The passing problem isn’t isolated to Harrison, though. It’s team-wide. “Whenever they got the ball, they tried to shoot it,” Calipari said after the win over Georgia on Saturday. “If they couldn't shoot it, they tried a little bit more to shoot it, and then one more thing to try to shoot it, and if they couldn't shoot it they passed it.” Kentucky is 12th in SEC conference games in assists per field goal at 46.3 according to KenPom.com.
Kentucky can get destroyed on the interior
Against LSU, Kentucky had no answer for big man Johnny O’Bryant (29 points on 12 of 20 shooting) whether the Wildcats tried Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle or Dakari Johnson. The problem wasn't limited to Kentucky’s defensive end or this game. LSU blocked 11 shots, the most against Kentucky during the Calipari era. And 10 days earlier, Tennessee grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against the Wildcats.
Julius Randle can’t take over
In three SEC games, Randle has been held to 10 points or fewer. That Randle still averages 16.1 points per game is somewhat remarkable given the way teams gang up on him defensively. The triple-teaming of Randle and physical play is partly a function of the supporting cast. The Harrisons and James Young haven’t always made teams pay for focusing so much on Randle.
The Big Question: Can Kentucky find out what’s right?
The 2014 Kentucky team will hope for a repeat of 2011. That season, the Wildcats went 10-6 in the SEC, with all the losses coming on the road. Once Kentucky got on neutral courts, the Wildcats won the SEC Tournament and reached the Final Four. And while Kentucky this season never expected to start February with five losses, the other four defeats aren’t nearly as bad as LSU. But where are the big statements? The win over Louisville remains the high point of Kentucky’s season, but what’s the next-best moment on which the Wildcats can brag? Putting away Tennessee in the second half in Lexington? Look at the resume: Louisville and Tennessee may be the only wins over NCAA at-large bid teams on the schedule. Kentucky’s problems are more related to effort, chemistry and decision-making rather than personnel. That may be a doomsday scenario for the Wildcats.