CRAWFORD | Kentucky's 82-80 loss to Tennessee: Teaching tool or warning sign?
WDRB's Eric Crawford on Kentucky's loss at Tennessee, and what it means.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For the University of Kentucky basketball team, this week — heck, this month — was always going to be about what happens this coming Saturday in Rupp Arena against the Kansas Jayhawks, not what happened in any of these Southeastern Conference games.
Certainly, it’s not going to be about Tuesday’s 82-80 loss to Tennessee.
Yes, it sends out some warning signs. It’s not unusual for Kentucky to lose at Tennessee (coach John Calipari has lost three of his past four there). But let’s face it, Chattanooga, South Carolina and Arkansas all had been able to come into Thompson-Boling Arena and win games.
This loss, against a team ranked No. 63 in the Ratings Percentage Index coming into Tuesday’s game, is the first you could classify as a “bad” loss for Kentucky, even though Tennessee had been on the doorstep of knocking off a ranked opponent for a while. But it’s not the end of the world, especially on a night when three of the nation’s four highest ranked teams all lost.
If the Wildcats beat Kansas Saturday, they’ll roll through the rest of the SEC and collect their No. 1 seed after the conference tournaments. If they lose, they’ll probably slip to a No. 2 seed. Oh, the travesty.
Of more importance is the question of whether this loss at Tennessee is just an example of bad luck (phantom foul, slipping on a wet spot on a major possession) or an example of a team that is not improving, that is beating people because of its talent, but isn’t being forced to improve of necessity.
We’re not likely to get that answer tonight. But Calipari is concerned over the question. You could hear it in his postgame comments.
“I’m not getting through to some guys,” he told reporters. “I told them after, you’ll continue to lose. I’ve done this 30 years, you cannot do this and win basketball games. You cannot do it. I don’t want to call guys out, but I could go right down the line. Here’s what I’m asking you to do, and you refuse to do it. . . . But we’re all freshmen, we may need to lose a few games in a row.”
Tennessee second-year coach Rick Barnes had a clear game-plan — limit Kentucky’s fast-break opportunities and try to get the ball into the paint. The Volunteers executed. Kentucky got only nine fast-break points in the game. They were led by guard Robert Hubbs III with 25 points.
“We didn’t turn them over. We had no active hands,” Calipari said. “We were more concerned with what we were doing on offense. We weren’t throwing Bam (Adebayo) the ball. I had to call timeout. I told them at halftime, you’re coming out if you don’t throw him the ball. Doing what’s right for the team isn’t.”
Adebayo made 7 of 8 shots and scored 21 points in 34 minutes. In SEC games, Adebayo is shooting 72.7 percent from the field. And he makes free throws. Yet, SynergySports stats show that heading into last night’s game, he had gotten the ball in post-up situations just 95 times in 19 games, an average of five times a contest.
“Tom Brady said it best — you must do what’s right for the team, even though it might not be right for you,” Calipari said. “Bam at some point, walks over, says ‘You may want to tell them to throw me the ball,’ and I had to laugh. And we’re down. At halftime I told them, that’s it. It’s not that we’ve got selfish guy, it’s that they’re just playing, versus asking what are we trying to do this trip down. . . . I hate to lose, but sometimes its good. This team has always been pass, pass, pass, in, out, drive, kick, go. Right now, whoever has it holds it as long as they can, until they make a pass, and the pass they want to make is the hero scoring pass. . . . The good news is it’s still in January, that’s what’s great. This isn’t college football.”
No, but it’s getting past time to have learned these lessons. Kentucky lacked toughness on the interior -- besides Adebayo. The Wildcats gave up drives to the rim.
Kentucky shot 41.7 percent for the game — its lowest of the season in SEC play. It also trailed for all but 6:52 of the game, and its 11-point deficit midway through the second half was its second-largest of the season.
The Wildcats won’t have long to worry about it. They’ll begin preparation for Kansas on Wednesday. If they win that game, nobody much will remember what happened in Knoxville. Lose, and the doubts will start to fly in earnest.
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