CRAWFORD | Put away your shovels (for now), five thoughts on UK's plight
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The immediate aftermath of the University of Kentucky's 72-67 loss to South Carolina Saturday night was just as perplexing as the loss itself. John Calipari spoke to Tom Leach on his IMG Sports postgame radio show, but not to the throng of media that accompanies UK to every road destination. Assistant coach John Robic, who nearly led the Wildcats to the upset after Calipari was ejected in the second half, said when asked why Calipari didn't talk, "I don't know. You'd have to ask him."
The dysfunction inherent in those actions, as well as Calipari's postgame radio assertion that his players "are looking to me too much," and seemed to play better without him, only fire up more questions. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports served most of them up, rotisserie style, and it was Calipari he held over the fire.
But postgame speculation, critique and criticism has been rampant even from corners usually sympathetic to Calipari and UK's "Players First" mission.
My five takeaways, looking forward and backward:
1. PUT YOUR SHOVELS AWAY. There will be plenty of time to shovel dirt on this Kentucky team if and when it flames out come the postseason. But right now? I'm not going to give you a big speech about how "anything is possible" in the postseason. I'm just going to talk a little history.
When Louisville lost to South Florida on Senior Day in 2012, I didn't even pack enough clothes to finish out the Big East Tournament. I didn't even reserve enough hotel nights in Manhattan to stay for the final. That team lost four of its last six games. It lost at Providence (ranked No. 112 in the Pomeroy Ratings and likely worse in the RPI) by 31 points. It lost nine regular season games and went just 10-8 in the conference.
Those guys were done. Except their coach was telling them they were going to win four games in four nights in the Big East Tournament. Which they did. And then he told them they were going to the West Regional and not coming back until they'd won the regional title, which they did.
Nobody saw that coming, except the coach and maybe a few of the players. Nobody.
I didn't see a Final Four in the works after four straight road losses and four losses in seven games for UK in 2011. None of them were as bad as Saturday's loss at South Carolina, but they lost to a not-very-good Arkansas team and to an Ole Miss team that would not make the tournament.
What am I saying? I'm saying that team legacies are written on the canvas of the postseason. Get to a Final Four, and nobody seems to remember you lost eight regular-season losses. Even Michigan's Fab Five had eight losses heading into the NCAA Tournament as freshmen.
This UK team has a bunch of problems. It also has a bunch of talent. And it will have a blank canvas heading into the SEC Tournament. Three years ago, nobody thought they had much chance to beat a No. 1 seed in Ohio State, much less North Carolina after that. The world opens up if you get a big tournament win.
Before you zip up the body bag of this UK team, it probably wouldn't hurt to make sure it isn't still kicking.
I know a run is unlikely. I also know, from long experience, sometimes that's exactly when the most memorable postseason runs happen.
2. THE WILDCATS NEED TO GENERATE OFFENSE FROM DEFENSE. The fundamental flaw with this UK team is perhaps too late to fix, but it has to do with Calipari's basic defensive philosophy. Calipari has always taught dogged half-court defense. This team is capable of playing that in stretches, but frankly, gives up too many good looks.
Calipari has counted on "rim protectors" like Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel and the presence of size and great rebounders to provide transition opportunities . As a result, UK for the past several years has ranked near the bottom of NCAA Division I in its percentage of defensive possessions that end in steals.
But Calipari has a team with a different makeup this season. He has depth. He has size. He has the luxury of playing pressure defense, making opposing offenses uncomfortable, and generating transition opportunities by getting into passing lanes, pressuring full-court and in general turning defense to offense. He has a team full of gifted finishers on the break. But he has them sitting back in zone or a basic man-to-man, waiting for the offensive attack instead of dictating how the offense will play.
He has a Ferrari. He's driving it like a Town Car.
It may be too late in the season to change that entirely. It's not as simple as saying, "play faster," or rolling a ball out and telling guys to play loose. If you're going to pressure the ball, it entails defensive rotations, and rotations to cover for those rotations. Pressing full-court is an exercise in execution and communication, and requires not only a commitment of time in practice but the commitment of the coach to play enough players to induce opponent fatigue.
That's not something Calipari likes to do. Nonetheless, stressing to his team to be more aggressive defensively and to at least make the effort to create more turnovers could not hurt. It needs to take more chances defensively, and dial up more heat on the ball if nothing else, whether by half-court traps or full-court pressure. For a group struggling to make shots, more possessions would help. And it would get the team out of the limited eight-man rotation that it seems to have settled into, and which has left the players who are on the court seeming fatigued.
3. MARCUS LEE MAY WELL HAVE MADE A MISTAKE. When is this guy going to play? It's an honest question. He's not playing now. The extent of his action most games is being assigned someone on the team to cheer for. He has seen double-digit minutes just once in SEC play. He's averaging just six minutes per game this season. As a high school prospect, he was down to Kentucky, Louisville and California. At U of L, I imagine if Calipari isn't going to use Lee, they'd love to borrow him for a little bit, a 6-9 McDonald's All-American who can jump out of the gym, block shots and run the court? He went to UK's Midnight Madness. He was sold on the allure of the most dominant recruiting class of all time. I'm not blaming him. Having talked to him, he's a great kid, extremely thoughtful and articulate, and would be valued in any program.
I just don't know when he's going to see daylight at Kentucky. How does next season look? Is he going to beat out Trey Lyles? Karl Towns? It's a tough scenario. And it's not any easier for guys like Derek Willis. This season's struggles could create a backlog of returnees, which would be great for the team's outlook, but not-so-great for a few of these guys who would like to play in some actual games.
4. PLAY THE EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE. If UK has any kind of run, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are going to play a key role. Poythress had a bad game at South Carolina. But he's an improving player. It's not rocket science that Robic had those guys on the court during so much of the comeback. Julius Randle is the team's great talent. But these guys bring some experience, and frankly some of the historical desperation that will be needed down the stretch.
Similarly, both Harrisons and James Young on the court all at the same time throws the offensive balance of this team off-kilter. The team is not distribution-minded enough with that combination. Any two are fine. All three are too much. Play Randle, Poythress and Cauley-Stein, rotate others in, and let the three guards rotate, instead of looking for time for the big men.
Finally, most of UK's offensive struggles could be solved by writing the words "get to the rim" on the sneakers of every player. When UK determines to get to the rim, not many teams are have the personnel to stop them. Instead, what the Wildcats are winding up with now are jump shots from the Harrisons, or from James Young, even from Julius Randle. The jump shots aren't working -- except for the Wildcats' opponents.
5. CALIPARI NEEDS TO CALM DOWN. I know he wanted to make a point by being ejected at South Carolina, and he wanted his team to respond to his absence because it sure wasn't responding to his presence. But his ejection is the last message he needed to send to a young team. You can do that when you have veteran leadership. When you've got a bunch of freshmen? You can't lose your cool like that. Get a technical if you want, but stay on the sidelines.
The fact is, UK was shooting far more free throws than South Carolina in that game. Calipari was asking to be tossed out. But right now, the most important thing for UK's season is for its players to trust Calipari and to buy into what he is saying. And it's tough to do thatnwhen the coach is ranting and blowing up and then in the locker room out of sight. Calipari has players who need a strong hand. They also need positive leadership and a coach who is out in front of them.
After the loss to North Carolina, Calipari admitted, "My hope was that we would be, like, the best team in the past 12 years." In some ways, Calipari seems like a guy still stung by the fact that the Wildcats aren't.
This whole team needs to get over that, lest it become one of the most disappointing teams in the past 12 years, and a historic cautionary tale.
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