Buzzer-beating defeats can only be defined as demoralizing.
Go ahead and recreate the final two possessions of Kentucky’s most recent loss to South Carolina in your head (I know, I know. I’m sorry). The Wildcats tied the game up with a beautiful mid-range jumper from Immanuel Quickley in a dangerous road environment. The Gamecocks quickly inbounded the ball with roughly four seconds left in regulation before tossing up a desperation heave from just inside halfcourt that somehow banked its way into the bottom of the net.
It was one of those shots where every Kentucky fan knew it was good the second it left Jermaine Couisnard’s fingertips. The Big Blue Nation has witnessed heartbreaking shots like that before during head coach John Calipari’s tenure. Sometimes fate takes control of what is happening on the court.
Those types of shots can change the course of a team’s entire season. Since the devastating defeat, Kentucky doesn’t sound like they’re anywhere near ready to throw in the towel.
“It’s been great,” Kentucky forward Keion Brooks said on Friday about the team’s overall vibes in practice. “You know, losing like that, at the buzzer off a heave from 30-feet that banks in, it can be demoralizing at the time but we know we still have a lot of season left. We got a lot of stuff we gotta work on and we know we’re not where we’re supposed to be so we have something to look forward to. So our team morale and our chemistry is still great and we’re still upbeat.“
The ‘Cats surrendered a 14-point lead with roughly 15 minutes left in the second half against USC. It wasn’t even like Kentucky was playing up to their full potential, either. A double-digit lead felt like it should have been in the 20-plus range. Instead of stepping on the gas and running South Carolina out of their own gym, UK came completely unglued.
The intensity vanished. Kentucky was missing assignments on box outs and played with a serious lack of physicality that ultimately cost them the game. 20 offensive rebounds for USC will go down as one of Calipari’s worst efforts on the glass by his team over his last 10 seasons in Lexington.
“We’re [the frontcourt] not as physical as we need to be,” Brooks continued. “Still taking strides in that area but I feel like we’re getting better. We just have a team that’s young but we still need to figure it out that us being young and us having a lot of freshmen can’t be the excuse anymore.”
An explosive one-handed putback dunk early in the second-half from South Carolina’s Keyshawn Bryant nearly sent the roof off of Colonial Life Arena. Nate Sestina missed a box out that could have prevented the highlight from ever happening.
“We pride ourselves on rebounding and being physical and the last two games we’ve kind of slipped in that area,” Brooks added. “We just gotta take a better approach of hitting a man first, not shying away from contact, and then at the point of attack being aggressive and trying to get the rebound.”
Saturday’s matchup against Arkansas will provide the ‘Cats with a perfect opportunity to bounce back on the defensive glass. The Razorbacks are known to run five-guard lineups, which will give Kentucky a massive size advantage down low.
“If they [Arkansas] want to play small we can play small as well,” Johnny Juzang said on Friday. “We got so many versatile guys with a lot of talent, so I don’t think it should be a problem.”
Only one rotational player for Arkansas stands at least 6-foot-8. Kentucky boasts three with a few more standing around the 6’5/6’6 range. If there were any game for the ‘Cats to reassert themselves as a dominant force on the glass, this is the team to do it against. All it takes is one impressive showing to flip a mental switch for some of the youngsters.
“We know there’s a lot of season left,” Brooks said. “We know we’re not anywhere near being where were capable of being so we got something to look forward too.”