Kentucky basketball: 3 lessons from the loss to UNC Wilmington

Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports /

The Kentucky Wildcats dropped the Saturday matinee game at home to UNC Wilmington. In front of almost 20,000 fans, still oozing from the Miami (FL) victory just a few days ago, the unranked Seahawks came into Rupp Arena and methodically beat the Cats. To pile on the pain, the loss spoiled two long-awaited debuts for Wildcat fans: unveiling the new court and watching Aaron Bradshaw’s first minutes of the season. Certainly not a good start to what is widely considered the “Most It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year..”

Here are three lessons Kentucky basketball can take away from their loss to the mid-major Seahawks of UNC Wilmington.

Guards must guard

A big reason for the early success has been the offensive firepower of the Kentucky basketball guards. In all eight games this season, one of the guards has led the team in scoring. Rob Dillingham once, Reed Sheppard three times, Antonio Reeves twice, and DJ Wagner twice.

However, there is a trend developing on the defensive end that must be addressed. Teams with veteran, patient guards are forcing the young, undersized Wildcats to commit to their defensive assignments. This tactic was used by the St. Joseph guards earlier in the season and again on Saturday by the Seahawks. Even with DJ Wagner, arguably the best perimeter defender on the team, missing from action nursing an injury, the expectation to stop opposing guards still applies.

Let’s hope Coach Calipari and his coaching staff make the necessary adjustments ahead of the big game against another batch of savvy guards in North Carolina in a few days.

Play possessions with purpose

Following the win against Miami (FL), the Wildcats were one of the top teams in the nation at taking care of the ball and taking it away from their opponents. Turnovers and ill-timed shots were major contributing factors in the loss on Saturday.

For this Kentucky basketball team to find sustained success, it is imperative to find production with every possession. This applies both defensively and offensively. Saturday’s loss can be summed up by analyzing the numbers in the box score. Coming into the game, the Wildcats were one of the top offensive teams in the country. They were averaging over 72 possessions per game and scoring on over 55% of those possessions. Following their two most potent offensive games of the season, it was an all-systems failure against UNC Wilmington where they only scored on 47% of their possessions. Again, this can be found in the box score where the Wildcats had their season low in field goals made (24), field goals attempted (59), 3-point field goals made (5), 3-point field goals attempted (17), bench points (5), assists (14), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.07), steals (6), and total points (73).

To get back to their winning ways, the Wildcats must get back to their offensive formula of taking care of the ball, utilizing every peg on the floor by ball movement and player movement, and knocking down shots from the perimeter.

Continuity is critical

Possibly overshadowed by the loss was the shuffling around with the roster. Reed Sheppard was inserted into the starting lineup replacing DJ Wagner who was ruled out with an injury. Additionally, the much-anticipated debut of Aaron Bradshaw came early in the first half. Assuming Wagner’s injury doesn’t linger much longer, coach Calipari and the coaching staff will be tasked with determining the best lineup combinations.

The upcoming game in Philadelphia against the University of Pennsylvania will be a homecoming for DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, and Justin Edwards. This would be a great game for those three freshmen to have time on the court together and find some continuity with the rest of the roster. One of the most criticized pieces of Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, by fans and analysts, has been failing to play the best lineups, despite what the stats indicate.

With rumors circulating weekly on the upcoming availability of Zvonimir Ivisic and the health of Ugonna Onyenso, let’s hope the coaching staff has a plan in place to figure out the best lineups for another run in March.