Kentucky basketball: Wildcats outplayed, out hustled as Gonzaga dominates

Kentucky Wildcats forward Lance Ware (Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)
Kentucky Wildcats forward Lance Ware (Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports) /

72. 528. 88. 541. Final

For the second time in less than a week, the Kentucky basketball team laid an egg when it came to big games and looked completely lost, confused, and not ready to play as the No. 4 Wildcats were pushed around and humiliated by No. 2 Gonzaga 88-72.

Coach John Calipari has said this team looks shaky thus far even before the lackluster performance in Spokane and try as he might screaming, yelling, and switching lineups his team just didn’t respond.

Last week on the road in Indianapolis at the Champions Classic they played a dud of a game falling in double overtime 86-77 to Michigan State completely falling apart in the second period with Oscar Tshiebwe on the bench with five fouls.

Against Gonzaga, it was supposed to be Tshiebwe and Drew Timme facing off as two of the top contenders for player of the year.

Tshiebwe finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and two assists but played half of the second half with four fouls. Timme finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and four turnovers. Timme also drew 10 fouls Kentucky fouls.

The difference though was Timme had support from his fellow teammates on the court while Tshiebwe did not.

Here are some quick takeaways.

Are big-time stages just too daunting for this Kentucky basketball team

It seems clear that this Kentucky basketball team (3-2) can handle the cupcakes on its schedule, but is not ready for the bright lights and big stage at this point in the season.

Should we be concerned?

Granted the season is young, but two big games and two losses in which they look dazed and confused are not a good sign.

Calipari was asked about the fight or lack of that his team displayed.

"“And we got — look, I wouldn’t trade my team for any team in the country. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I’m not happy right now. We lost the game that we start awful, can’t make a shot, get back in the game, and then when you do all that, you finish those off. It shows we’re not ready. It was Michigan State. We had a chance to finish people off and we, you get up five and six and all of a sudden you miss a layup, you miss a free throw, all that stuff is coming back to haunt us.”"

Are they playing to dominate the lesser teams while playing unsure and tight when it comes to the games in which they need to win now for post-season positioning?

Kentucky has blown out Howard, Duquesne, and South Carolina State all in Rupp Arena by a combined score of 278-178.  In those three games, their 3-point shooting was 32-67 (47.8%).

Against Michigan State and Gonzaga they were outscored 174-149 and could sink only 13-50 (26%) from long range when they needed them.

Jacob Toppin waited far too long into the second half trying to help his team despite scoring 16 points he was 7 for 18 shooting (0-4 3’s) grabbed just three rebounds had two assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes.

It’s evident he isn’t ready for the big time as we had all hoped.

CJ Fredrick was Kentucky’s leading scorer coming in at 14 points a game but like Michigan State, he was a nonfactor with 3 points on 1-9 shooting and 1-6 from 3-point range.

Sahvir Wheeler just seven points and four assists.

Freshman Cason Wallace (14 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) and Chris Livingston (0 points, 2 rebounds) looked like first-year players.

Kentucky’s defense has a long, long way to go in stopping top talented teams

Kentucky gave up so many easy baskets playing lackluster defense that it dug itself such a huge hole it was impossible to climb out of.

Gonzaga’s field goal percentage kept going up and up while the Wildcats kept sinking lower and lower on the offensive end. The Zags for much of the game was shooting in the high 50 percent average while the UK offense was in the teens.

In the end, the Zags (3-2) finished by hitting 31 of 55 field goals for 56.4 percent. They blitzed the Wildcats early on building a 41-25 halftime advantage and the teams played even with 47 points each in the second half.

Calipari said it was so bad he had no choice but to switch it up at halftime.

"“I had to change how we were playing offensively at halftime. What did you see, if you know basketball? What did I do? So most of you really don’t know. I couldn’t get Oscar (Tshiebwe) to run the plays right. You know why? He hasn’t been practicing with us. So I said, Go to the baseline. We’re going to play dribble drive around you. And that’s what we did the whole second half. I ran two plays. That were pass, pass, make a play. Couldn’t run a play. Told them, man, you know, we got to practice and get together as a team and get better. … Offensively in the first half, it was so embarrassing that we couldn’t even run a play. Couldn’t run a play. Not one. And it wasn’t just Oscar. It was our guards too.”"

Kentucky could not slow or stop the Zags from cutting, weaving, backdooring, and draining what seemed like easy shot after easy shot.

If Timme wasn’t burning them it was Julian Strawther with 20 points and 14 rebounds or Rasor Bolton with 24 points or Anton Watson with the double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. All of them made over 50 percent of their shots.

It’s back to the drawing board for a team that is lacking an identity

Calipari and the Wildcats return to Lexington licking their wounds in preparation for North Florida coming to Rupp Arena on Wednesday for a 4 PM game.

It’s clear they are still trying to find their chemistry but you have to at least show up and fight. Against Gonzaga, they got within 3 and 5 points down the stretch but those deficits quickly ballooned back to double digits.

Maybe this team can’t shoot as well as we expected from 3-point land or maybe they can. We just haven’t consistently seen it.

Can this team run and press? Well unless you are making buckets it’s hard to apply a press and get up and down the floor. Kentucky had a mere five fast break points.

Calipari tried just about every weird lineup he could come up with, but none of them worked against a much more skilled Gonzaga team who overcame their 18 turnovers. However, they also cleaned the boards and Kentucky’s clock with a 39-29 rebounding advantage and a massive 44-24 edge with points in the paint.

Kentucky may be able to bounce back against a weaker North Florida team on Wednesday, but on Saturday when Scotty Davenport brings his Bellarmine team from Louisville to play Kentucky will see just how well an offense that Knights will put on display.

It’s going to be an interesting soul-searching week for these Wildcats.

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