KentuckyThe home loss to South Carolina this week was one of the most shocking results of the season. For context: The Wildcats were favored by more against the Gamecocks than Saint Peter’s in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The loss has only heightened tension in Lexington, where John Calipari’s program has collapsed in recent years. With the return of reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, no one saw the Wildcats’ struggles coming.
Here’s a look at what went wrong for Kentucky as it teeters on the bubble in mid-January.
Poor offensive execution and spacing
This Twitter thread Field of 68 analyst (and former Clemson guard) Terrence Oglesby does a great job capturing some of Kentucky’s flaws offensively. In short, many of the basic Kentucky offensive actions that have been modernized in recent years to increase spacing by other programs have not been modified by the Wildcats, and there is a lack of purpose in the team’s off-ball cut and player movement that hurts his ability to get easy shots. As Oglesby says, “It’s so hard to win consistently when you rely on hard shots to win.” And when teams aren’t afraid of your playmaker (Sahvir Wheeler), your power forward (Jacob Toppin or Chris Livingston) or your center (Tshiebwe) from deep, difficult shots become more and more frequent. .
Data from Shot Quality backs it up: Kentucky ranks 342nd nationally in the rim and three rate category, meaning it takes more midrange jumpers than anyone else in the country. . This is generally not a recipe for success on the attacking side. It often feels like the Cats’ best offense is simply putting the ball on the edge and relying on Tshiebwe to get it.
Wrong ball screen defense
Kentucky wasn’t the defensive elite last season, but the Wildcats have dropped significantly from last year’s 36th-ranked unit (according to KenPom) to this season’s group, which ranks 92nd. This drop becomes more puzzling when you consider that freshman Cason Wallace is an elite defensive player, both keeping the ball and getting interceptions in the gaps. Many of Kentucky’s defensive problems appear to stem from struggles defending ball screens, which Tshiebwe has been exposed to some this year.
Alabama has had great success attacking Tshiebwe in pick-and-roll situations, even knocking him off the ground at times. Tshiebwe is the reigning National Player of the Year and a necessity for this team on the glass, so it’s not like sitting him down is a real option. But his vulnerability to drop cover rolls opened things up for opposing offenses, and poor rotations and communication didn’t help. Some of Kentucky’s weak three-point defense can be attributed to bad luck, but not all of it.
As Kentucky Goes, This Team Ain’t So Talented
While Kentucky has enough talent to be better than its current 1-3 SEC mark, it’s not a hugely talented roster. Maybe we would have viewed it differently if rookie Shaedon Sharpe hadn’t chosen to give up his college career and head to the NBA a year earlier, but there’s only one player in this team (Wallace) that you can confidently say will have a long career in the NBA. Calipari has apparently made a conscious decision lately (until the incoming Class of 2023 at least) to take on more transfers and build a roster whose pieces fit together more easily than his heavyweight groups of the past. The problem right now is that the parts not seem to fit together better than previous Kentucky teams, and this group is not designed to blow teams away on talent alone.
Again, if Sharpe had played this year at Lexington, the talent disparity wouldn’t be as noticeable. It also wouldn’t shine as bright had Toppin made the leap to the forefront that many expected in pre-season.
A lack of effort
Maybe the loss to South Carolina is enough to ignite something in this Kentucky team, but the Wildcats’ response to a disappointing start hasn’t been what one would expect from a team that boasts several players in their senior year of college basketball. . In post-match interviews, Tshiebwe didn’t mince words, saying “some of the [my teammates] aren’t willing to fight” and even suggesting that Calipari should have put in extras to try to trigger the team.
In some ways, Saturday’s showdown with Tennessee in Knoxville might be the best thing for Kentucky right now. It’s a low-expectation game the Wildcats should lose on paper, against a team fully capable of physically intimidating Kentucky if they don’t bring the fight. If there was ever a time a fractured group could come together again, it would be for a game like this.
The popular buzzword in college sports these days is “alignment” – coach, athletic director, president and all other stakeholders keeping pace on key issues as things change rapidly in the industry. Institutional alignment seems to be lacking in Kentucky right now, exemplified most obviously by this summer’s “school of basketball” fiasco and reported this week by Athleticismis Kyle Tucker.
Tucker reports that Calipari and athletic director Mitch Barnhart “no longer have a meaningful relationship” and “don’t speak to each other anymore.” The ‘school of basketball’ comments relate to Calipari’s desire to build a new training facility which Barnhart is refusing to go ahead with despite the $30 million already pledged to the project. Tucker also pointed to Barnhart’s resistance to Calipari expanding his support staff, the type of move that could potentially help Calipari from an X’s and O’s perspective.