By LARRY VAUGHT
This is not the first time John Calipari has had teams struggle in the regular season at Kentucky.
Saturday’s 83-75 loss to unranked UCLA in New Orleans has not gone over well in the Bluegrass — especially since Kentucky’s next game on Friday is against Louisville.
But should fans be overly concerned or not?
Flash back to the 2010-11 season. Remember how UConn dismantled UK in the Maui Classic 84-67 in late November in a game that was never really close. That team lost six Southeastern Conference road games and entered postseason play with eight losses. The Cats won the SEC Tournament but then edged Princeton only 59-57 to open NCAA Tournament play. However, they followed that win wins over West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina to reach the Final Four.
That Brandon Knight led team lost 56-55 to UConn in the Final Four semifinals — and probably was the best team in the country in March.
Think back to the 2013-14 season when UK — ranked No. 1 in the preseason — was 12-6 in SEC play and lost nine regular-season games, including 84-65 to Florida in the final regular season home game. Before that there was the brutal loss at South Carolina where Calipari got ejected early in the game. The Cats shot 26.9 percent from the field and trailed by 16 points late in the game against a team that was near the bottom of the SEC. Yet after the game guard Aaron Harrison said UK could still “write a great story” about this season — as it did by reaching the NCAA title game before losing to UConn.
Of course, the 2012-13 season started with questions and ended with a NIT loss at Robert Morris. Kentucky finished 21-12 due in part to the season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel but due in larger part to the lack of consistent point guard play. The Cats lost to Baylor at home in December and got thrashed 83-71 by Texas A&M in Rupp Arena. The Cat lost 69-52 at Florida when Noel got hurt and 88-58 at Tennessee the next game. UK lost four of its last five games, including 64-48 to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament and then at Robert Morris.
So is this Kentucky team headed for a finish like UK had in 2011 and 2014 or one like 2013? Or could it be somewhere in between?
“There's always hope. I remember all too well the years before Cal when I didn't think we had any realistic shot at the Sweet Sixteen, much less Final Fours,” long-time Kentucky fan Karen Sprinkle told me.
She’s right. Calipari restored fans’ faith that UK could compete for a national title every year even though he’s won “just one” in his eight years at UK. Those 2011 and 2014 teams caught fire in March and both could easily have been national champion despite their struggles during the season.
There is one huge worry with this team — defense. Normally, defense is a strength for Calipari’s team. But not this season.
Kentucky is averaging 80 points per game after 11 games but is giving up 70.5 per game — the second highest total of any Calipari team at UK. This team is last among Calipari’s teams at Kentucky in field goal percentage defense (40.5). Virginia Tech and UCLA shot a combined 52.6 percent from the field in the last two games and made 22 3-pointers. The current Cats are seventh in 3-point field goal percentage defense (32.3)
I’ve seen many UK fans worry about the impact losing to UCLA will have on UK’s NCAA seeding. It won’t help, but I don’t think it will be the last game the Cats will lose. I actually picked UK third in the SEC — behind Texas A&M and Florida — going into the season and Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn are all playing extremely well going into conference play. And much like the 2010-11 season, my guess is that any league road game is going to be a test for this team.
Kentucky fans thought this could be another highly seeded UK team in March. That’s not likely — and I don’t think it is really a surprise to Calipari based on what he said during a preseason interview in September.
“We won’t know exactly how we will be playing in February or March for a while. We are talented and have a great group of kids. We should be a pretty good defensive team if we choose to be,” Calipari said in September.
Note the particular emphasis on being a good defensive team “if we choose to be.” I thought that was probably just Cal-speak at the time. Now I think I should have paid more attention because too often it has looked like UK has been lackadaisical on defense and Calipari teams just don’t play that way.
He also noted that after having three points guards — DeAaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins — last season, he might have one (Quade) Green or none this year. There is no Brandon Knight like the 2011 Final Four team had. There’s not an Andrew Harrison like the 2014 Final Four team had.
There might be more ugly games coming, especially on the road. And it is no given that UK will beat Louisville Saturday because the Cards are more experienced and tougher physically than UK. Playing at Rupp Arena should help UK’s energy level but it does not guarantee a win.
Still, I learned in 2011 and 2014 not to write off Calipari teams because of what might happen in December, January or February. He’s had a knack for working his own March magic and that’s why despite the flaws this team has, it would be a mistake to say today that Kentucky still can’t be a Final Four team in March.
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