Down in the media room prior to last night’s game against Texas A&M, you could hear the Kentucky basketball team in the locker room several doors down. The music was loud, players were screaming, and the excitement to earn their 11th win of the season was absolutely there.
After a disappointing 77-75 loss on the road against Alabama on Saturday, it was certainly a great sign for what we’d see on the floor.
The ball was tipped, and just 3:44 later, the Wildcats found themselves down 10-0 against a Texas A&M team that had lost to UC Irvine, Washington, and Texas Southern, among others. For the second game in a row, Kentucky came out completely flat against an inferior opponent.
From behind the scenes to the hardwood, there was a disconnect. But why?
If you ask Kentucky shooting guard Tyler Herro, it has to do with the team’s on-court focus, specifically on the defensive end of the floor.
“I think there’s a lack of focus in some areas, especially defensively,” he said after the game. “Going under ball screens for handoffs when we should be going over, stuff like that. We just need to pay attention to the scouting report and lock in.”
In Herro’s eyes, it’s no secret the team has regressed over the last two games following back-to-back weeks of elite play against North Carolina and Louisville.
“I think we took a step back in the Alabama game, definitely. And then here tonight, too,” he said.
After the game, an angry head coach John Calipari said the mental aspects of the game such as intensity and fight shouldn’t even be a situation this team has to deal with. He shouldn’t have to coach effort or passion for the game of basketball, especially for a group as talented as this one.
“They are not empowered yet, let’s just say that,” he said. “At some point, if this team is going to be what I believe they can be, they can be one of those teams, they have to be empowered. That means that I shouldn’t even talk about effort and intensity and fight. Shouldn’t even come out of my mouth, not once.”
Herro added that he knows his team’s slow starts are unacceptable and they need to get things turned around in a hurry. Once they can learn to put forth effort all 40 minutes of the game, the Wildcat guard is confident in Kentucky’s ability to get back on the right track.
“We started pretty slow, but eventually we got it going a little bit,” he said. “Second half we played a little bit better. Overall, though, we have to start games quicker and better. I think in the Alabama game we started slow too, so we just have to be ready at the beginning of the game.”
Following the 10-0 deficit to start the game, Calipari called on freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard Jemarl Baker, and center Nick Richards, among others, to give the Wildcats some life off the bench.
It wasn’t easy, but Kentucky clawed back to finally take a 17-16 lead at the 10:56 mark in the first half. It may not have been pretty, but the Wildcats stayed in front from that point on all the way through the final buzzer.
For Quickley, he understands it’s certainly not a favorable position to be in, but he’s happy to use his role off the bench to put his team back in position to win.
“That’s always tough,” he said. “Coming off the bench, you just want to give the starters all the energy you can. We don’t like to start slow, but we come off the bench and give them energy and turn the game around any way we can.”
Kentucky redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker, who added four points, one rebound, and three assists in the victory, said he wasn’t worried about the deficit and knew they’d figure it out sooner rather than later.
“We’re a pretty composed team, so I knew it wouldn’t get too out of hand,” he said. “I knew we’d get it together and start playing well.”
As far as his play specifically, Baker said he just wants to provide whatever the team is missing off the bench in any situation. Whether it be on offense hitting big shots or on defense showing he can thrive in both on and off-ball situations, Baker just wants to prove he can play.
“Every time I come in, I just want to have energy and play hard,” he said. “I want to play great defense and give whatever the team we need to win. I just try to get out there, play hard, and play my game.”
After getting back in front, Kentucky eventually pushed the lead to as many as 14 early in the second half. Instead of putting their foot on the gas pedal and finishing out the blowout victory, the Wildcats allowed the Aggies to cut the lead back to just two with 7:55 remaining.
If you ask Quickley, like we saw immediately after the opening tipoff, the blame can be placed on the team’s energy out on the floor. When he comes off the bench, he wants to make sure his team finds a spark to get back on the right track.
“I’m not really sure (how the lead vanished), maybe it was our effort and energy,” he said. “We tried to come in with effort and energy, get easy run-outs, steals, stuff like that. I think when the starters got back in, they fed off that too.”
And he’s right.
Quickley drilled a three-pointer to push the lead to five with 7:37 remaining in the game, and then the Wildcats found a way to extend it to double-figures at the 3:43 mark. Kentucky eventually led by 14 with just 0.8 seconds remaining, and if it weren’t for a half-court heave from Texas A&M to cut the lead to 11 as time expired, the Wildcats would have beaten the spread (anywhere from -12.5 to -13, depending where you look).
Calipari has preached throughout the season that he’s just wanting every player on this team to give it their all for 40 minutes each night. They might miss shots and make mistakes, but the Kentucky head coach is confident that this group can win games at a high rate on pure effort alone.
It just wasn’t that night.
His team won, but Calipari knows his team got out-hustled, and it led to lack of execution on both ends of the floor.
“We had some guys that got outworked,” he said. “Just got outworked and think it’s okay, like what’s the big deal, you know who I am. You’re either outworking the other guy or he’s outworking you. … We’re breaking down execution right now and it’s driving me crazy… That’s the kind of stuff that we’ve got to clean up and it’s just not acceptable if we are going to be any good.”