CRAWFORD | Four problems Kentucky faces after its loss at Texas - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Four problems Kentucky faces after its loss at Texas A&M

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – My apologies for posting this late. The University of Kentucky basketball team has lost its third straight game, a first in John Calipari’s coaching tenure, and I’ve lost my panic button.

I know it’s around here somewhere. I remember pressing it when the Harrison twins looked like they were leading Kentucky into oblivion a few years back. I can’t remember if I used it last year when Kentucky lost by 22 at Florida, its third loss in four games. I might’ve left it in Gainesville come to think of it. Or maybe it’s between the couch cushions.

Doesn’t matter. I’m not going to press it anyway. It’s just nice to have it close by, especially on nights like these, when the Wildcats come out of the locker room at halftime and are outscored 17-2 before the first TV timeout of the second half. For a minute, Texas A&M was dunking so much I thought I’d caught a replay of an old NBA All-Star Game.

Texas A&M, a team that came in with a losing record in the Southeastern Conference, but a good team nonetheless, led by 23 points with six minutes to play and took the final minutes of the game off – going without a field goal in the final 3 ½ minutes – before walking away with an 85-74 victory.

“I’m not cracking. I’m not wavering,” Calipari said. “I hate losing. Can’t stand it. I liked our first half, I thought, ‘OK, maybe we busted through.’ And then we let go of the rope, and when things got funky they just let go . . . which is what young kids do, but we’ve got to break that. . . . I’ve done this 30 years. If I were a two-year coach, I’d probably be panicked."

Cracking or not, Kentucky has a few problems. I’ll enumerate them here.

1). NO GO-TO PLAYER, OR ON-COURT LEADER. If you were to draw up a signature tenant of Calipari’s best teams, it would begin with this main ingredient: One of the best players in college basketball. Preferably more than one, but certainly at least one. Marcus Camby. Derrick Rose. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns.

He can win without one of those. He went to the Final Four in 2011 with a team whose best player was Brandon Knight, an NBA Draft Lottery pick to be sure, but not a dominant college player.

This team, at the moment, has nobody who fits that bill. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, perhaps the least-heralded of Kentucky’s recruits, has been the steadiest. He had 19 points to lead Kentucky on Saturday night, on 9-12 shooting. But even he had four turnovers, a third of the team’s total, though at times you can’t blame him for feeling as if the whole offense is on him.

It’s not that nobody wants to be Kentucky’s go-to player. It may be that too many guys want to be the go-to player. Nobody’s shy about shooting it. Some are shy about doing the other things necessary to win.  And there’s no leader on the court to get in someone’s face and tell them what to do.

Hamidou Diallo, a sophomore, could fill that role, but he’s struggling with his game, and as Calipari says, correctly, it’s hard to get on other guys if you’re not playing well yourself.

“I can’t seem to get them over that hump,” Calipari said after the loss. “They’re more concerned about how they’re playing, and then when they’re concerned they look really bad individually, like you can’t play basketball, you’re not very good.”

Then, Cal says, like on Saturday, you get desperate and the end of games and you’re just trying to win, “All of a sudden all of the good stuff that you have in your body comes out and you really look like you’re a good player and all of a sudden you’re playing for us instead of yourself. But there’s not enough trust there yet. And it’s not just one guy.”

Players first only goes so far. To win games, you have to play team first. If you do that, you get all of the accolades that “players first” implies.” 

2). THEY’RE YOUNG. HAVE YOU HEARD THEY’RE YOUNG I knew when Calipari said a while back, “They’re no longer freshmen,” he was going to regret saying that at some point.

Because they’re still freshmen. And they’re playing like it. And they don’t have a seasoned presence on the court to give them any immediate direction. Calipari can do it to a point. But he can’t, as he said he’d like to do on Saturday, “call a timeout every two minutes.”

Now, this problem doesn’t sit well with a great many Kentucky fans, because nobody came in and told Calipari that he only can recruit one-and-done types, or just as difficult, players who think they are. And give him credit, he’s always had some of those experienced guys sprinkled in to help give his teams some grounding – Dominique Hawkins, Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson.

Put any one of those guys on this team and they’d make a world of difference.

Otherwise, you just have to hope that this accelerated growth process that Calipari tries to pull off every year is just about done with the puberty stage.

3). THE SEC IS REAL. There have been years where Kentucky has struggled, but once it got into  SEC play, it could reach a cruising altitude and go into auto-pilot to work out any difficulties it might be having.

This is not one of those years. Flush with football TV cash, schools around the league have invested in top-notch coaches and put money into their basketball facilities. Rick Barnes has awakened Tennessee. Ben Howland is an experienced hand at Mississippi State. Bryce Drew might be building a monster at Vanderbilt. Bruce Pearl has it going at Auburn – which leads the SEC and, by the way, is Kentucky’s next conference destination.

The league is no joke. It’s a picture of what life is like in the Big Ten or ACC or any of those other top basketball leagues.

There have been years when Kentucky would have cruised through a couple of these conference games that they’ve lost. But times have changed. And while this is perhaps frustrating for Kentucky, it’s not entirely a bad thing.

“This league is unbelievable,” Calipari said. “it’s a heck of a league. I think our strength of schedule is probably 4 or 5 in the country and our RPI is probably 14, 15, 16.”

Calipari was pretty close. As of midnight, Kentucky’s RPI ranking was No. 19, and its strength of schedule No. 6.

“We’ve just got to get a game when we put two halves together, and let the winning take care of itself,” Calipari said.

4). WAKE-UP NEEDED. Some of this is just a lack of urgency on the part of the players. The good news for Kentucky, and why I’m not so worried about the lack of a panic button at this point, is because in mid-February, problems of intensity can be fixed. Problems of talent cannot.

This is not a Kentucky team that is so uber-talented that it can overcome a lack of preparation or effort. If the conference season to this point has proved anything, it has proven that. But it also is a team with talent. And Calipari usually is able to find the right psychological button to push to tap into it. There's no excuse for letting an opponent get to the rim unimpeded the way Texas A&M did Saturday night.

“We play for March,” he said. “That’s what we’re playing for. We’ve got to get this thing right, but we still have time. I’ve been in this situation before at different times at Kentucky. . . . When we get this, we’ll bust through. But we’ll bust through. And each week that goes by, it gets harder and harder to get this thing to where you want it to go. At some point, somebody has to lead . . . and say enough is enough.”

So the wait goes on. Whether it will be Tweak 2.0 or something else, Calipari continues his search for answers.

The danger, with losses piling up in succession, is that some players might tune him out. That’s what he’s fighting against. But if they tune in, the end of this season could still be worth a listen for the Wildcats.

“A big part of it is they have to want this to happen. And I believe they do, and I believe they’re embarrassed by their play. I do. I told them, ‘If I want this worse than you want this, please tell me so I can start taking my wife to movies and dinners.’ But they want this. They want it for each other, it’s just a tough deal.”

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