Kentucky has not had the smoothest transition into Southeastern Conference play. The road opener against Vanderbilt was a scare, and coming back home resulted in the second loss at Rupp Arena in the John Calipari era. While one could be brushed off as a “win is a win,” the other is much more unexplainable. Both, however, had a common denominator: damaging late-game runs by the opponent.
In the second half last Thursday, Vanderbilt reeled off an 18-0 run which saw a 16-point Kentucky lead turn into a 2-point deficit over the course of a little more than eight minutes. It was slow and painful to watch. Even more shocking to the situation was the Commodores had only scored 31 points in the 26 minutes prior. A fading team progressing at a rate of 1.19 points per minute suddenly turned into a raging 2.25 points per minute to give the Commodores a lead — its first of the game. Had the sleeping giant been awoken earlier, who knows the possible outcome?
Advance two days as Texas A&M hangs around in Rupp Arena long enough to make its move with six minutes remaining. Kentucky had battled all day in a frustrating affair, quite literally facing a one-man-army. Finally, just when the Cats seemed poised to run away with it on the heels of an Archie Goodwin layup to go up by four, an 18-2 run by the Aggies slammed the door on Elston Turner’s 40-point outing. In less than five minutes Kentucky’s 4-point lead turned into a 12-point hole. In the blink of an eye, the battle of attrition against Mr. Turner was over.
What happened in these late game breakdowns? In crunch time, what is this team doing to allow a team a second wind like we saw at Vanderbilt? With their backs against the wall, this team folded and failed like it did against Texas A&M. So close, yet so far. What went wrong?
Kentucky’s three-point shooting in the last two outings has been atrocious. In total the Cats are 9-for-35 for just 26 percent. And during the late-game runs by Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, the Cats were a combined 0-for-6 from behind the arc. Now you might say, “Of course they missed those shots — that’s why the other team went on a big run in the first place.” And you are right; but it’s the shot selection that may be the issue.
Against the Aggies 18-2 run, Kentucky missed five shots total, and three of them were from the perimeter. Against Vanderbilt’s 18-0 run, Kentucky missed eleven shots total and did not earn a trip to the free throw line once. What this says is Kentucky strays away from its bread and butter in late game scenarios: slashing and getting to the rim. Settling for mid- to long-range jumpers primarily against a zone defense has exposed this serious weakness in the Cats offense.
At Vanderbilt, Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays, and Kyle Wiltjer each missed a three-pointer that helped the Commodores close the 16-point gap. But even more detrimental were the missed jumpers (5) and layups (3). Archie Goodwin missed a pair, Willie Cauley-Stein missed a pair, Harrow missed a pair, and Nerlens Noel and Wiltjer each missed one. All of these shots and no free throws.
Not that this team is money at the charity stripe. They are far from it. But the modus operandi of John Calipari basketball has long been to attack the basket. They did not do that against Vanderbilt.
They failed to do that against Texas A&M as well. During the five minute spurt, Kentucky missed five shots, three of which were 3’s. Meanwhile the Aggies fired up just the same ratio, but connected on each one. After tossing in a few free throws, you have a 16-point swing in the matter of minutes. Rather than attack the basket and do what Kentucky teams do best, they fired up shots from long range.
Calipari has no magic wand, we know. And surely he recognizes more faults in his team and has a better plan to fix the shooting woes than are outlined here. There is a lot this team needs to improve on. This is merely a summary to raise awareness, for you the fan. Keep an eye on the late-game shot selection Kentucky has this evening against Tennessee. With a sizeable lead, will the Cats become complacent and back off? Or down to the wire, will desperation set in too early and they begin hoisting bad shot from the perimeter?