After last night’s abysmal 69-66 loss against an unranked Utah team, is it time for Cats fans to start worrying? All the indications point to YES.
Let’s get to the point. This Kentucky team is not very good. And if this assertion is wrong, there is nothing there to convince otherwise.
The worst part? It is not a new diagnosis.
If you couldn’t tell by the litany of slow starts against impotent teams like Utah Valley St. or UAB, then maybe the 3-point loss as the #1-ranked team in the country to an unranked, sub-200 Evansville squad woke you up. Still not seeing it? For the few of you that continue to disregard the glaring deficiencies of this year’s roster, last night’s 69-66 loss – a game in which the Cats looked more like a JV squad than the #6-ranked team in America – to an unranked Utah team should’ve been pretty eye-opening.
To briefly recap a game where Bill Walton dominated the TV-sets more than the players, Kentucky underperformed on all fronts. The Wildcats were bereft of an offensive rhythm the entire game, often settling for deep threes in transition or jumpers early in the shot clock. Frequently, there was more isolation play than passes. As for their defense – the one statistical category that isn’t flagrantly embarrassing this season – Kentucky was unable to defend the triple-threat of Rylan Jones, Timmy Allen, and Both Gach who accounted for 60% of the Utes’ points and a combined 112 minutes of playing time.
However, the most obvious weakness came from beyond-the-arc. Kentucky shot 11.8% from three-point range, missing 15 of 17 attempts. You would’ve thought that the Cats understood their lack of shooting capabilities were exactly how they were stunned by Evansville.
Well, you thought incorrectly.
For Larry Krystkowiak, the Runnin’ Utes’ head coach, the Wildcats’ inability to shoot from deep was a pronounced hole in the otherwise talented roster. “We watched a number of games,” Krystkowiak said. “Kentucky does a lot of great things up until this point [but] I think it’s a fair statement to say their perimeter shooting is not one of their strengths. You take them out of pick-and-roll a little bit and — not dare them, but if you’re going to get beat, I think that’s the place to get beat against them.”
This is exactly what Evansville did, and exactly what Utah replicated.
After making only two of seventeen three-point attempts, Kentucky’s squad (one that Calipari preached was his greatest shooting team ever), ranks 326th in the country in three-point shooting percentage. Yes, a team that was supposedly the sixth-best team in the country shoots three-hundred-twenty-six-best from three. Kentucky’s 27.5% rate from three with over 150 attempts, is a stat that may just be more concerning than head-scratching.
To add fuel to the fire, John Calipari admits, your guess is just as good as mine. “I don’t have the answer,” Calipari said. “I wish I did. I believe we have good shooters. Maybe [they’re] timid right now.”
In the final 3:40, Kentucky missed ﬁve different potentially game-tying attempts, and on the sixth, they committed an offensive foul.
How did this happen? For Ashton Hagans, “Lack of discipline, I would say.” When asked what the identity of his team’s offense is, Hagans responded, “Um, I wouldn’t say 100 percent yet.”
The most harrowing reality from the Cats’ late-night in the City of Lights is that age is no longer an excuse.
A John Calipari coached team having an advantage in experience is about as rare as finding an alligator in Lake Ontario, it just doesn’t happen, and if it does, harmony is not likely to ensue. Yet, on Wednesday, Utah christened T-Mobile Arena with a squad made up of twelve new faces, including ten true freshmen, only to upset the sixth-ranked Wildcats.
After all of his time preaching fight and finish, Cal saw a lot of what he was asking of his Wildcats in the competition. “How about they had three freshmen starting, two sophomores, and they punched us in the mouth?” Coach Cal said. “All of this stuff about my young team? He has a young team too. One guy weighs 250 — no, 195. The other guy weighed 260 — no, 210. They weren’t beasts that way, what they did was they physically fought. They fought for position, they fought you on defense, they found for rebounds, they fought running down the floor, they out-ran you. It’s what I’m trying to get my team to do.”
If this game reveals one thing, it shows that inexperience is no longer an excuse. The grand deflector of youth has long since been the cardinal excuse of John Calipari and Cats fans alike, but now, the tides have turned. The days of awe and denial surrounding young teams winning it all are gone. Calipari was the trailblazer, the pioneer of a new wave in college basketball, but it is safe to say the rest of the field has caught up. In order to renew the vigor and pride of Calipari’s first five years at Kentucky, we must accept our inexperience and march forward without fear.
So, back to the title of the article. Is it time to worry yet?
The answer – a bright, flashing, towering, emphatic, neon-yellow, ‘YES’.
There has been no better time to worry than now. No, not even the 2012-2013 squad that met its demise to an NIT-crazy Robert Morris team caused more reason to panic. And not even the 2015-2016 Tyler Ulis led team that saw an early Round of 32 exit against Indiana raised such an alarm. While drastically different in composition, these teams’ fates were already set. Those squads had an understandable ceiling, with potential for growth predetermined before SEC play even began.
This team, this year’s Wildcats are quite the opposite.
Boundless talent, freakish athletes, deadly shooters, and experienced big men. What else could you ask for? For AP voters, not much. As we know, the Wildcats were honored as such with a preseason #2 ranking, only to be backed up with a win over the then #1-ranked Michigan State Spartans (a win looking increasingly, meh, since the Spartans sputtering over the last several games), who the Wildcats accordingly usurped for the #1 spot.
Regardless of program or tradition, a team with this type of roster and this type of start deserves to garner some pretty high expectations. If that program is Kentucky, which it just so happened to be, accelerate those expectations by light-years.
However, the response from this team has been woefully inadequate. In just ten games, Kentucky has surrendered losses to two sub-100 teams according to KenPom’s rankings: Utah (102) and Evansville (206). No team in the Calipari era has ever accumulated two sub-100 loses in non-conference play. Furthermore, only the 2012-2013 team had a worse start through ten games (7-3).
The swagger that embodied teams of years past, i.e. John Wall and Boogie, has long since vanished. Teams are not scared of Kentucky basketball anymore.
And, before you rush to a conclusion, it’s worth noting we are still everyone’s Super Bowl, we still pay the bills, and we are still the greatest tradition in college basketball. But, there is no subjectivity in saying that the bar has been lowered. Starting off his ‘second ten’, a reinvigorated Calipari and his highly touted squad have fallen flat on their faces.
Now the attention turns to Calipari and his staff. Where do we go from here? What changes must be made?
For starters, these problems aren’t new and will take total buy-in to fix. “It’s disappointing, but I say this, I’ve done this 35 years, so this stuff happens,” Calipari said. “We didn’t pass the ball to each other. Couldn’t get them to pass it to each other. Literally, they were getting on each other because they weren’t passing it to each other. Sometimes guys worry more about themselves than the team [but] more than any that I’ve coached the last five to seven years, this team needs each other. If they go out and try to do it themselves… we’re in trouble.”
Every year we are graced with a new slogan, a new calling card for Coach Cal’s group of misfit five-stars. Hell, we already cycled through one already this year. But now, it seems like ‘fight and finish’ will be replaced with ‘this team needs each other’.
Per usual, Cal went to social after Wednesday’s tough loss:
“Losing stinks and we are still trying to figure this out, but I like the fact that we had a will to win at the end. For the other 30 minutes, they were the aggressor and they were the fighters. We were not.
Like I always tell my team, learn from the game and then NEXT. That’s why I got up early, watched tape, went to mass, worked out, watched more tape, staff meeting here in 20 minutes, and then meeting with the team to do film and prepare for the next two days before a great practice this afternoon.
These guys need each other. We need everybody with extreme energy and effort and doing what they do for this team. We have as much upside as any team. Now we’re going [to] have to go chase it. I believe in this team. I’ll say it again: NEXT.”
As the curtains draw to a close on non-conference play, the Kentucky Wildcats are at a tipping point with severe implications. Dropping what was meant to be a confidence-boosting, tune-up performance, the Wildcats instead face off against two top-five opponents, including the NET and KenPom #1 team, Ohio State.
As the Wildcats scratch to find any sort of identity, their season hangs at a balance, with the scale ready to tip in either direction. Muster two wins: save your season and gain confidence as you tackle SEC play. Drop two, or worse, get embarrassed in both: pitfall to 8-4 and cement one of the worst starts in the Calipari era.
Is it time to worry? Yes.
Can this season be saved with two consecutive wins? Absolutely.
Time will tell, but one thing is for sure, this team and this program NEEDS each other more than ever before.