KentuckyThe home loss to South Carolina this week was one of the most shocking results of the season. For context: The Wildcats were favored more against the Gamecocks than they were against Saint Peter’s in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The loss only added to the tension in Lexington, where John Calipari’s agenda has declined in recent years. With the return of defending National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, no one expected the Wildcats to come.
Here’s a look at what went wrong in Kentucky as it teeters on a bubble in mid-January.
Poor offensive execution and spacing
This Twitter thread from Field of 68 analyst (and former Clemson guard) Terrence Oglesby does a great job of picking up some of Kentucky’s flaws on the offensive. In short, several of Kentucky’s basic offense moves that have been revamped in recent years to increase spacing in other programs have not been modified by the Wildcats, and there is a lack of goal in the team’s cut and player movements that detract from his ability to take easy shots . As Oglesby puts it, “It’s hard to win consistently when you’re relying on hard shots to win.” And when teams don’t fear the point guard (Sahvir Wheeler), a stronger striker (Jacob Toppin or Chris Livingston) or center (Tshiebwe) with deep, hard shots becomes more commonplace.
Data from Shot Quality backs this up: Kentucky is ranked 342nd in the nation for “Ram and Three Rate”, meaning it requires more mid-level jumpers than anyone else in the country. Generally, this is not a recipe for success in the offensive. It often feels like the Cats’ best attack is to simply put the ball on the hoop and rely on Tshiebwe to get it.
Bad defense in front of the ball screen
Kentucky wasn’t an elite defensive team last season, but the Wildcats dropped significantly from last year’s 36th position (according to KenPom) to a 92nd-place group this season. This decline becomes more puzzling when you consider that freshman Cason Wallace is an elite defensive player, both guarding the ball and intercepting in the gaps. Much of Kentucky’s defensive problems seem to stem from the battles defending the ball screens, where Tshiebwe was exposed this year.
Alabama has had plenty of success attacking Tshiebwe in pick-and-roll situations, sometimes even playing him from the floor. Tshiebwe is the defending National Player of the Year and is a must for this team on glass, so it’s not like planting him is a viable option. But his weakness in handling rolls within drop range opened the way for opposing attacks, and poor spins and communication didn’t help. Some of Kentucky’s poor three-point defenses can be attributed to bad luck, but not all.
As Kentucky goes, this team isn’t that talented
While Kentucky has enough talent to be better than the current 1-3 SEC mark, it’s not some overwhelmingly talented roster. We might have viewed it differently if touted recruit Shaedon Sharpe hadn’t decided to drop out of his college career and come to the NBA a year early, but there’s only one player on this team (Wallace) who can be confidently said to have a long NBA career. . Calipari has apparently made a conscious decision recently (at least until the upcoming Class of 2023) to take more transfers and build a roster whose pieces fit together more seamlessly than his heavy groups of the past. The problem at the moment is that the pieces no they seem to fit together better than previous Kentucky bands, and this group wasn’t made to blow bands away with talent alone.
Again, had Sharpe played for Lexington this year, the talent gap wouldn’t have been as noticeable. It also wouldn’t shine as much if Toppin made the power leap forward that many expected in preseason.
Perhaps the loss to South Carolina was enough to spark something in this Kentucky team, but the Wildcats’ reaction to the disappointing start wasn’t as inspiring as you’d expect from a team that has several players in their final year of college basketball. In post-game interviews, Tshiebwe didn’t mince words, saying “some [my teammates] they are not willing to fight” and even implying that Calipari should have introduced a walk-on to try to light up the team.
In some ways, Saturday’s clash with Tennessee in Knoxville may be the best thing for Kentucky right now. This is a low-expectation game that the Wildcats are destined to lose on paper, against a team fully capable of physically intimidating Kentucky if it doesn’t produce a fight. If there is a time when a divided group could get together again, it would be for a match like this.
A buzzword in collegiate sports these days is “fit” – the coach, athletic director, president and all other stakeholders are united on key issues as things change rapidly in the industry. There seems to be a lack of institutional adjustment in Kentucky at the moment, as most clearly illustrated by this summer’s “basketball school” fiasco and described this week by AthleticKyle Tucker.
Tucker reports that Calipari and athletic director Mitch Barnhart “have no relationship anymore” and “don’t talk to each other.” The “basketball school” comments related to Calipari’s desire to build a new training facility, which Barnhart refuses to do even though $30 million has already been pledged for the project. Tucker also reported resistance from Barnhart to Calipari expanding support staff, the kind of move that could potentially help Calipari from an X and O point of view.