It’s not quite panic mode around Big Blue Nation, but there are plenty of concerns weighing on fans’ minds as conference play rolls on.
In the beginning, Kentucky basketball followers told themselves many of the team’s early-season problems would work themselves out in time for conference play; well, conference play is here and those problems are still problematic, while others have been emerged.
This week, the Cats presented many concerns for fans to debate at work, in class, at the family dinner table and on message boards. The severity of those concerns varies from conversation to conversation, but these power rankings present somewhat of an idea of how they are prioritized at this stage in the season.
Leading the way is the UK frontcourt, undoubtedly the biggest disappointment from Tuesday night’s loss…
1.) Frontcourt production
Topping this week’s power rankings is Kentucky’s frontcourt — or lack thereof. The three primary bigs were complete no-shows at LSU, combining for seven points, eight rebounds, six turnovers and 12 fouls in the game.
The trio of Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere had as many rebounds as Mychal Mulder, a 6-4 reserve guard who averaged two minutes per game entering Tuesday night’s trip to Baton Rouge.
Lee was the biggest disappointment of the bunch. He played only five minutes in the entire game as a starter before fouling out with zero points and two rebounds.
Poythress and Labissiere also failed to produce in their combined 42 minutes played.
“We got killed at the 4 and 5,” said John Calipari. “Murdered… They gave us absolutely nothing.”
2.) Isaiah Briscoe’s shooting
There isn’t a worst shooter in college basketball than Isaiah Briscoe. For a guy so good at driving the basketball, drawing contact, and finishing at the rim, he simply cannot shoot at all. Briscoe is currently shooting 35 percent from the foul line and 19 percent from outside. I honestly can’t remember the last time a shot of his went in.
Calipari said he recently told Briscoe to find a spot on the court, anywhere, and learn to make a shot from there. He said he told Briscoe to devote his time to shooting from one particular spot and the team will work around that.
After competing hard in wins against Louisville and Ole Miss, the Cats took a step backward at LSU by playing its worst game of the season. The lack of effort led to the team being called out by the only two players who did give their all in the game: Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Ulis told reporters his team came out flat and wasn’t ready to play.
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg said, “I have a lot of concerns for this Kentucky team. They don’t compete, they don’t play hard.”
On his call-in show Wednesday night, Calipari admitted to being worried about the team’s mentality.
“You’re trying to figure out why you’re thinking the way you do. You look at guys out there who were tentative, basically got bowled over. Where was the fight? Where was the competitive spirit?”
4.) Skal Labissiere
Though he is one-third of the problem in the current No. 1 concern, Skal Labissiere’s individual struggles fall to third on this list.
Labissiere played well in the win against Ole Miss, considering the slump he had been in throughout December. He disappeared again at LSU, but he did reel Ben Simmons into a nonsense foul.
That counts for something, right?
5.) The lack of offensive weapons
Kentucky is a two-man offense right now with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray scoring the basketball and everyone else hoping to add a couple of garbage buckets to help out. Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee cannot create for themselves; Skal Labissiere is a hot mess right now; and we just spoke of Isaiah Briscoe’s struggles with anything resembling an actual shot.
Aside from the occasional three-pointer by Derek Willis, this team relies too heavily on how well Ulis and Murray are shooting the ball. The Cats needed huge treys from Ulis, Murray and Dominque Hawkins in the second half of the Louisville game; if not for those, Louisville likely wins that one.
A post presence sure would make a world of difference for the offense. Only one person on the team can provide that and he’s running a little behind schedule in doing so.
6.) Free throw shooting
Kentucky currently ranks 290th in the country at the foul line at 65 percent from the stripe. It has been exceptionally bad in the first two games of conference play with a 50 percent clip and a 52 percent clip against Ole Miss and LSU. Kentucky hit only 22 of its 43 attempts in those two games.
Isaiah Briscoe in those two games: 2-for-14.
Kentucky was out-rebounded in three of its last four games and two of those three games were losses. In fact, Kentucky was out-rebounded in all three of its losses on the season, the other being at UCLA.
Just another reminder this isn’t the team of a year ago.
8.) Shot selection
Why Jamal Murray insists on shooting the pull-up jumper two feet inside the three-point line is beyond me. Why Isaiah Briscoe insists on shooting at all is even further beyond me.
In the LSU game, Murray took two or three long two-pointers that found the back of the iron. Briscoe took two three-pointers and another long jumper, and none of them were close to finding their target. Tyler Ulis also took a couple of ill-advised, contested shots; Alex Poythress launched a quick three-pointer, too.
In the case of Murray and Ulis, it goes back to the lack of help around them. Seth Greenberg said Kentucky was running its offensive sets without any purpose or intention of scoring, which is why those two settled for forced shots.
No matter how you look at it, the shot selection wasn’t good.
9.) Tyler Ulis’ three-point shooting
Once believed to be the team’s most trusted long-range shooter, Ulis’ numbers are down on the year from outside. He hit only three of his 12 attempts against Ole Miss and LSU, after crawling his way back into our good graces with four made three-pointers in the Louisville win.
Ulis is currently shooting 29 percent on the season, well below his 43 percent last season.
10.) Jamal Murray’s turnovers
After turning the ball over seven times against Louisville, Murray seemed to settle it down a tad offensively in the next two games. He turned the ball over twice each game against Ole Miss and LSU, below his season average of 3.3 turnovers per game.
Murray is still learning to play off the ball and still learning when to create and when to defer, so hopefully this number continues to decline as the season progresses.