LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Another year, another early season story about a University of Kentucky basketball team that hasn’t put it all together. Like the Grinch and Frosty the Snowman and whatever that Heat Miser show is called, it's a holiday tradition.
So pour a big glass of (spiked) Egg Nog and read this year's rendition. I'm no Bing Crosby but I'll try to make it sing.
This one, I think, is a bit different.
Do not mistake the Wildcats’ 1-3 start for a lack of talent. Do not assume it means that the team won’t be dangerous come March, whatever March is going to look like. That much is the same.
But also do not mistake this: The Kentucky team that lost to Georgia Tech 79-62 on Sunday night has farther to go than any John Calipari Kentucky team that I can remember. It has farther to go than any Calipari Kentucky team that you can remember.
It probably has farther to go than any of them that Calipari can remember.
Georgia Tech came into Sunday’s game 0-2. Those losses were to Mercer and Georgia State. This team is no Richmond.
In a day of snap judgments and routine overreaction, it’s easy to start blasting away at this Kentucky team. That’s a good way to make yourself look silly come Spring.
Still, you have to call it how it is. And ESPN’s Seth Greenberg gave it a good start immediately after Kentucky’s loss.
“They don’t compete, they don’t take care of the basketball, they didn’t even recognize changing defenses by Georgia Tech,” Greenberg said. “... They’re not competitive, they’re not tough, and they don’t have a point guard at this point in time.”
But other than that, things are fine.
Frankly, Calipari’s own assessment wasn’t much more rosy, though he assured the Big Blue masses that he's far from giving in.
“I’m not cracking yet,” Calipari said. “. . . I mean everybody is knocking us around right now. Like I said, I’ve been through this kind of stuff, I just haven’t done it in this environment. I’ve not done it where – like, I’ll give you something for all of these kids it’s bad. There is no face-to-face contact, very little with me and you need that when you’re young. You need to talk. You need the face-to-face. The second thing is, the schedule, which I knew was a mistake and probably should have just said, ‘Look, here’s what we are doing.’ But it should make us better. You look at all of this stuff and it’s either a setback or you’re ready to say, ‘It’s setting us up for something that we need to do.’ Because every one of these games we’re learning. We’re learning. Now, we have to start winning some games. I hope we can. But my job is to make sure that we’re getting better, to put us in that position to win and help them at the end win games. But we haven’t been in a game where I can help them, the last couple of games. Well, the Kansas game we were right there but the Richmond game we weren’t and that was kind of the same kind of finish.”
All of that is well and good, but this Georgia Tech team had no business being able to wear out Kentucky in this manner, no matter how much experience it has. To win by that margin against players of Kentucky’s caliber, Kentucky had to help them.
It had to help them by playing tentatively, by lapsing into one-on-one mode, by panicking a little when things go the wrong way, by turning it over 21 times. And frankly, to break out of those habits, it takes coaching. It’ll take Calipari working on his players to erase those habits, while now fighting off the cloud of negativity attempting to settle over his team. Calipari can do that. We've seen him do it. He has proven to have those answers in the past. But he did not seem to have them during the game on Sunday.
“Some of the stuff I’ve got to hold them accountable like turning the ball over,” Calipari said. “I mean again, I’m just telling you we have guys trying to make the hardest play they can make. Why would you just not throw to that man? ‘Because I’m trying to show I can play.’ Well, what happens is you show that you don’t realize, you don’t understand. Just make easy plays and attack. We shot the ball better, did some better things. I thought Terrence (Clarke) did some good stuff. But, they tired us out when they went with the smaller lineup. We had our chances. We turned it over and they got a breakaway layup. So it goes from six and eight and all of a sudden you turn around and its 12, 14. What just happened? Turnover, turnover, turnover. So, we’ve got stuff we’ve got to work on. We’ll get back and we’ll go from there.”
Of particular concern to Calipari were the turnovers. Point guard Devin Askew had only one turnover, but the freshmen is struggling to play at the level Kentucky needs. The Wildcats had 21 turnovers and 5 assists against Georgia Tech. Those are not the numbers of a team that is looking for the open man.
On the season, Kentucky has 73 turnovers against 47 assists. Sunday night, 7 players had multiple turnovers.
“It was spread out everywhere, but we’ve got to begin to practice where at the end of whatever scrimmage however many turnovers you’re running,” Calipari said. “I mean there’s things that we can do and there are things that I’ve got to do. But, again, there’s a lot of stuff that we’re working on. And losing games makes it harder. If we play bad or do stuff and then win a game, there’s some like, ‘Ok. We can do this.’ But we don’t have any wins. We’re going to have to fight, not turn it over, play aggressively, make really easy plays, be more physical.”
Kentucky has played a difficult schedule, but not a killer schedule (ranked No. 51 national by Ken Pomeroy). An 0-2 Georgia Tech team, even on the road in an empty arena, is not a headliner of that. And Everyone is playing in the same COVID-altered environment.
With all other things being equal, it’s still better to have overwhelming talent. That makes the fixes easier. And Calipari has that. But he’s right about this – losing does make things tougher.
This team needs to learn game and court awareness. It needs to learn some basic offensive principles. It needs to be able to attack a zone defense. And it needs to be able to defend straight-line drives, or at least exhibit the desire to do so.
It needs a lot. Just don’t forget, it has a lot.
And since I promised it, a traditional end to our traditional holiday recitation.
He spoke some more words, and then turned to his work, and answered one more question in his 6-minute Zoom conference, and turned with a jerk. But I heard him explain, 'ere he moved out of sight, "All right guys, I've got to get on the bus to get out of here, thanks."
And he was gone. But there’s no getting away from the job ahead of him.
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