As the resident “outsider” here at Kentucky Sports Radio, I always do my best to stay in tune with the “mood” of the Kentucky fan-base. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll never understand the exhilarating highs or devastating lows of rooting for this particular team. But as someone whose job it is to give fans an outside view, I do try to at least understand where they are coming from.
That’s also why I tried to my best to pay especially close attention following the Wildcats’ loss to UCLA on Saturday. I knew that fans would be salty after the loss, and to be blunt, I understand why. This was a game where Kentucky entered as the favorite in Vegas and entered as the better team in the minds of virtually every impartial observer (myself included) and found a way to lose the game anyway. Even worse, it was a game where they largely because of their own self-inflicted mistakes like shooting too many three’s, turning the ball over, and in general, just getting outhustled.
In essence this is a loss every fan had the right to be mad about.
But even with that said, part of the job of being the outsider here is to try and give a broader, 30,000 foot perspective, and I feel like this is an especially good day to do that. Not only because I focus so much on Kentucky thanks to my job at KSR, but because I also know the UCLA program insanely well from living in Los Angeles and covering quite a few of their games over the last few years. As I said on Friday, I have already been to several of their games, and would argue that no one in the national media knows that program better than I do.
And it’s because of that, that I’m here to hopefully remove some of the gloom from Saturday’s loss For Kentucky fans. Because while there were some, big-picture problems that need to be addressed, this was also a game that the Wildcats could have won if just a couple things had gone different.
In other words, while fans have a right to be frustrated following this loss, I don’t think they have a reason for wide-spread panic or a need to give up on the season as a whole.
This game meant more to UCLA than Kentucky
I know, I know, this isn’t an excuse Kentucky fans want to hear. You never want to know that there was a win that was there for the taking, and your team just didn’t go out and grab it. At the same time there’s no other way to put it: This game simply meant more to UCLA than Kentucky.
That’s because while Kentucky was coming off a solid, resume-building win at home over Virginia Tech, UCLA had no such victories to speak of. Their “best” win was against a 6-7 Wisconsin team that isn’t really a solid win at all, and the Bruins have lost their three other biggest games of the season against No. 25 Creighton, at Michigan and No. 21 Cincinnati. The last two losses were especially devastating considering that UCLA had the Michigan win in hand only to blow it late, before they were blown out at home to Cincinnati in an embarrassing all-around performance last week. So you can imagine the sense of urgency from the Bruins players. Not only did they have two bad losses in three games. But they needed this win heading into Pac-12 play.
Now flip that to Kentucky, which is a young club which probably came into this game overconfident after that big win over Virginia Tech. In that game, virtually everyone on the roster played well, from Kevin Knox to Hamidou Diallo, Quade “Goggles” Green and Nick Richards, so why wouldn’t they all expect to do the same against UCLA? Not to mention that this game came just before Christmas break and it was easy for players to lose focus, especially in a game which meant more to the opponent.
I’m not saying that’s an excuse for Kentucky. But it is a reality.
UCLA’s three best players collectively had their best games of the season
For those of you who don’t know much about UCLA, here’s what you need to know: Coming into the season, virtually everyone expected Aaron Holiday, Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes to be their three best players in some form or fashion. Holiday played big minutes on last year’s Sweet 16 team and seriously flirted with the NBA Draft last spring (more on him coming) while Hands and Wilkes were both McDonald’s All-Americans last year who could have literally played at any college in America they wanted to.
Yet while all three have looked good individually at times, for some reason they haven’t played well together. At least until Saturday.
Now certainly some of that can be blamed on what Kentucky did wrong, but at a certain point you also have to give credit to really good players for playing really well on a big stage. Those three did that combining for 54 points, with Hands and Wilkes probably playing their best games at UCLA (certainly relative to the competition) and Holiday playing his most complete game of the season. Not only did he have 20 points, but also had a season-high eight assists.
Point being, there are going to be games this season where those three go off and there isn’t much the opposition can do about it. Saturday afternoon was one of those games.
Aaron Holiday is way better than folks realize — and will give a lot of teams fits the way he did Kentucky
One of the biggest takeaways that I saw from Kentucky fans on social media on Saturday was the frustration — and concern — at the Wildcats’ inability to stop penetration on the perimeter. Again, that’s a totally fair and legitimately complaint, and a bigger-picture fear going forward. It’s hard to beat just about any good team if you can’t keep its guards from getting to the basket.
At the same time what a lot of people probably don’t realize is just how good Holiday is. And while UK might face more talented guards this season (Collin Sexton comes to mind) they won’t face a single one who is as lightning-quick as Holiday.
For those who don’t know much about Holiday, well, as I mentioned in Friday’s preview article, he was actually probably one of the most underrated players in all of college basketball entering this season. He is a former Top 50 recruit who has two brothers currently in the NBA (Justin Holiday of the Chicago Bulls and the Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday) and the only reason most fans don’t know more about him is because he was overshadowed by Lonzo Ball last year. Holiday actually started a bunch of games as a freshman before being forced to the bench last season, yet he still averaged 12 points per game. There were games where he was the best player on the team.
Well this year Holiday is back and taking a back seat to absolutely no one. He is averaging a team-high 17 points per game, and it’s not like Kentucky is the only team that has struggled to guard him. He went off for 25 against Creighton and dropped 27 on Michigan a few weeks later. And guess what? He’s going to have big games in the future as well.
Again, it’s kind of what I said above: While no fan-base ever wants to settle for a loss, sometimes the other team just has good players as well. Holiday more than fits that category. And I’m sure if UK faces the Bruins again, Kentucky will be better prepared for him.
Kevin Knox will be better in big games going forward
When it comes to the Kentucky Wildcats this season, there are a few certainties: The word “wing-span” will be referenced at least 37 times a game, every game. Every announcer will laughingly say “This is John Calipari’s youngest team ever…. which is REALLY saying something” as if we haven’t already heard that 12,000 times this season. And Kevin Knox is the best player on this team.
Yet for some reason he didn’t play that way on Saturday. I’m not sure whether that was on him, the coaches, or more likely some combination of the two. But it’s got to get better for the Wildcats to have any chance against the best teams on the schedule.
In Saturday’s game, Knox shot the ball just 12 times, a number which — even on a team as deep as Kentucky — feels surprisingly low. Knox shot the ball 15 times for 21 points against Virginia Tech, and even in a loss to Kansas still managed to put up 20 points on a more efficient 8 of 15 shooting.
While I’m not privy to John Calipari’s practice plans, my hunch is that the Wildcats are working as we speak to make sure Knox gets more touches, and looks, against Louisville on Friday.
Most of the things that plagued Kentucky are correctable
More than anything else, you know what my biggest takeaway was from Saturday afternoon? It was that Kentucky wasn’t totally “outplayed” as much as they just didn’t do the little things needed to win. It seemed like every loose ball or hustle play went to UCLA. So too did a lot of loose rebounds, simply because Kentucky didn’t box out. Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed it, since John Calipari even said he was disappointed in his team’s “fight” earlier on Tuesday.
It also feels pretty out of character for this Kentucky team. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about watching them early is that even though there are a lot of highly-recruited guys on this roster, it is an egoless team, one where guys are willing to do all the little things needed to win. That’s not just sacrificing shots and minutes, but diving on the floor for loose balls and adding in all the little “hustle” plays as well. Yet for some reason they did none of that Saturday.
My hunch is that is an aberration more than a sign of things to come however. And they get back to the basics going forward.
Despite everything above, Kentucky still had a chance to win
You know what the crazy thing about everything I’ve listed above? Despite playing a very talented team, whose best players played their best games this season, in a game where Kentucky’s own best player didn’t play well… the Wildcats still had a chance to win late. Remember, this was a four-point game with under a minute to go before a few costly turnovers (and a lot of UCLA free throws) made the final score look more one-sided than it actually was.
Now granted, are there still things that need to improve? Absolutely. The perimeter defense has to get better, and the Wildcats need to get more consistent play from a lot of their guys, including Knox, Nick Richards and P.J. Washington. Quade Green was weirdly quiet against UCLA as well.
But while all that sucks, Saturday didn’t feel like a game where Kentucky got “exposed” or where a fatal flaw was revealed that is going to impact this team the entire season. Heck, it wasn’t even a game where, if Kentucky and UCLA played again later in the season (like last year), you’d feel like the Wildcats couldn’t or wouldn’t be favored going in.
Instead it was a bad loss, by a young team. One that they’ll learn from going forward.
And one that they’ll have the chance to avenge Friday against Louisville.
Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”