EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — If you need optimism about Kentucky basketball after the collapse late Tuesday night against Tennessee, read this. If you’d rather stare down the problem(s) with these Wildcats, pour yourself a stiff drink and scroll on.
After its 61-59 loss to the Volunteers, Kentucky is 17-7 overall and 6-5 in the SEC and facing a brutal back end of the schedule. Advanced metrics magician Ken Pomeroy gives the Cats a 45 percent chance or worse of winning their four remaining road games at Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida — all top-50 teams expected to make the NCAA Tournament.
Pomeroy projects Kentucky will finish 21-10 overall and 10-8 in the SEC, which could put John Calipari’s team squarely on the bubble come Selection Sunday. While somehow still No. 18 in the RPI, the Wildcats have slipped to No. 29 in KenPom’s rankings. They now rank No. 58 nationally in offensive efficiency and are being kept close in most games only by a defense that ranks No. 16.
But that’s the real head scratcher: UK ranks 2nd in the country in 3-point percentage defense, with opponents making just 28.7 percent from deep, which should be a recipe for success. Teams seemingly try to shoot themselves out of games against the Cats, who simply refuse to let them.
So what’s wrong with Kentucky? That’s the big, recurring question, but how much time you got?
The boiled-down version: The Cats can’t shoot, won’t pass and have a penchant for giving away the ball at the worst times (like twice in the final 49 seconds against UT). Other than that, they’re all set.
Out of 350 Division I teams, Kentucky ranks 192nd in assists (13.4 per game), 262nd in 3-point shooting percentage (.333), 273rd in turnover margin (minus-1.3) and 342nd in made 3-pointers (4.8 per game).
In these last two losses, against Missouri and Tennessee, the Wildcats made a combined 5 of 34 3s. They’ve made three or fewer from beyond the arc eight times this season. Calipari keeps saying that outside shooting isn’t as big a problem as everyone thinks, but it clearly is.
The fact that Kentucky now has fewer assists than turnovers on the season — star Kevin Knox is minus-21 in that category — is equally alarming, if not more so. The numbers, and Calipari saying things like “I can’t find five guys who’ll pass each other the ball” after the loss in Columbia, Mo., on Saturday add up to a big problem.
The Cats coach hinted Monday at an “adjustment,” something short of his famous “tweak” in 2014, but he’d better make it fast. His attempt to redefine assists, crediting players with one for the basic act of making any pass, failed to deliver the intended message: If you finish a game with two or fewer total passes, you’re selfish and should be ashamed.
This Kentucky team, which relies exclusively on seven freshmen and two sophomores, is not ashamed. But it is selfish, try though Calipari might to use a different word.
Take Hamidou Diallo, arguably the longest and most athletic guard in college basketball, who over the last three games has seen his minutes shrivel to an average of just 18.7 and who in that time has totaled 10 points, 7 fouls, 4 turnovers and 1 assist — on 3-of-14 shooting and 0 for 5 from 3.
For some odd reason, Calipari keeps starting Diallo, but he’s done finishing games with him, and that’s at least progress. Diallo played just 13 total minutes and was glued to the bench for the final 8½ minutes Tuesday night against the Volunteers.
He’s hardly the only problematic Wildcats player, but Diallo’s play stands out as almost an exaggerated version of the whole team’s trouble: looking to get his shot first, looking to pass only as a last resort, and completely ignoring whatever game plan Calipari has shared before the game and during timeouts.
Nearly every guy on the roster has demonstrated those traits at some point this season, and that’s how we got here, to Kentucky staring down the first three-game losing streak of the Calipari era. These Cats are already their coach’s second UK team in nine seasons to lose two straight more than once; the 2013 NIT team was the other.
And what once seemed like crazy talk — UK does have wins over KenPom No. 14 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas A&M and No. 37 Louisville, after all — is creeping toward becoming a real possibility. This team could be headed for the same sad postseason fate. At best, this looks like a team that’ll be in serious danger of losing the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
There’s still more than a month to change that narrative, and the 2014 team that lost nine regular-season games before a magical run to the national final will always exist as a never-say-never counterpoint, but this deeply flawed group finally has given Big Blue Nation permission to put its finger on the panic button and prepare to press.