BOZICH | Swept by Tennessee, Kentucky's future looks brighter for June than February
Tennessee has done more with less than Kentucky all season -- and the Vols did it again Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, sweeping the season series from UK.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – The forecast for the University of Kentucky basketball team remains perennially bright -- for June.
It’s February and March that look frosty and turbulent for John Calipari’s uneven team. When a coach puts the blame on himself, not his players, the concern is real. Calipari did that Tuesday night.
One day after Sports Illustrated posted a forecast that included six Wildcats and not a single player from Tennessee among the Top 60 prospects for the 2018 NBA Draft in June, the Volunteers bounced into Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky, 61-59.
The Wildcats had the ball and a two-point lead in the final minute but lost to Tennessee after losing to Missouri and almost losing to Vanderbilt.
"This one's on me," Calipari said. Said it several times.
Mark it down as Tennessee’s first series sweep of Kentucky since 1999 when Jerry Green coached the Volunteers -- and Tubby Smith coached the Wildcats.
Mark it down as another example of the struggles this Kentucky team has shooting the basketball. The Wildcats made 42.2 percent of their field-goal attempts and just three of their 14 shots from distance. It's been a season trend.
Mark it down as confirmation that the Wildcats can wave goodbye to the Southeastern Conference regular season title and concentrate on trying to earn the best seed possible for the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
At 17-7 overall and 6-5 in the SEC, the Wildcats slipped to a three-way tie for fourth place in the league, four games behind Auburn in the loss column.
Mark it down as another reason that Tennessee coach Rick Barnes as well as Bruce Pearl of Auburn are doing the best coaching jobs in the SEC. They are doing more, considerably more, with less talent than Calipari has in Lexington.
Barnes is doing it differently at Tennessee than he did at Texas, the place that pushed him out the door before he landed in Knoxville three years ago.
At Texas he had Kevin Durant. And LaMarcus Aldridge. And Tristan Thompson. And Avery Bradley. He had a string of guys who made it to the NBA but Barnes only took the Longhorns to one NCAA Final Four in 17 seasons.
At Tennessee, Barnes does not have Durant, Aldridge or Bradley. He has more guys who earned three stars than five stars from the recruiting gurus.
This Tennessee team is thick but not long. The Vols don’t start any freshmen, but they also don’t start any seniors. Calipari always talks about the youth of his team. Ken Pomeroy’s analytics site ranks Tennessee only 263rd in experience among 351 Division I teams. Tennessee is not an old team.
Before the game, I asked one NBA scout which Tennessee players he was there to observe.
The scout shrugged.
Here is a name: Lamonte Turner, Tennessee’s reserve point guard.
It was Turner who buried a three-point shot over Kentucky’s Quade Green with 26 seconds left to push Tennessee ahead, 59-58.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over for Kentucky – for the second consecutive possession (after Gilgeous-Alexander had scored five consecutive points to put UK ahead, 58-56).
Tennessee turned the misplay into instant offense – a quick pass from Jordan Bowden to Admiral Schofield for a dunk.
Rather than risk letting Kentucky make a three-point shot, the Volunteers fouled Gilgeous-Alexander in the final four seconds. He made the first free throw. He missed the second. Tennessee rebounded.
Calipari put the blame on this one – not Gilgeous-Alexander nor his team’s tortured offense.
“That game was in my hands to do something with it and I dropped the ball,” Calipari said. “This one is on me.”
What Calipari meant is that he should have called timeout when his players looked confused on the possession that led to the second turnover.
Typically, Calipari does not prefer timeouts in those situations because the defense is more uncertain than the offense. Not this time. He said his players looked hesitant and that he should have brought them to the sidelines to regroup.
But Kentucky did not lose this game in the final 30 seconds. They lost it over 40 minutes with an assortment of defensive wobbles and a persistent struggle to score inside the three-point arc. His freshmen are playing like freshmen, not like lottery picks, regardless of what Sports Illustrated says.
This game started strange and stuck to that script. Kentucky failed to make a two-point field goal for the first 14 minutes and 45 minutes – and that was a dunk Jarred Vanderbilt.
Until that dunk, all the Wildcats had were free throws and a pair of three-point shots by Quade Green. They missed eight of their first nine shots.
They finished the first half 8 for 21. Kevin Knox scored two points. Hamidou Diallo did not score any. By game's end, two Kentucky starters -- Diallo and P. J. Washington -- did not contribute a field goal.
The game remained strange in the second half. It was Green, Kentucky’s inconsistent point guard who continued to score when Calipari’s Top 60 NBA prospects did not. He made five of his first six field goal attempts and scored 12 of the Wildcats’ first 31 points. Green finished with 15, his best performance in SEC play.
The teams went back and forth. There were 13 ties and 17 lead changes. The final lead change came on Turner’s three.
“We had some spells where we were so bad,” Calipari said. “That’s what young kids do.”
For Kentucky, the challenge is real. The Wildcats face four more road games and the predictive numbers at Ken Pomeroy’s analytics website ranks Kentucky as the underdog in all four games – at Texas A&M Saturday, at Auburn Valentine’s Day, at Arkansas Feb. 20 and at Florida March 3.
Calipari has never lost three straight at Kentucky. That's one thing on the line in College Station Saturday.
As a group, those four programs cannot match Kentucky’s six NBA Top 60 prospects. But for now, Kentucky’s prospects look better for June than they do for February or March.
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