The day started off so well. Kentucky fans put in an awesome showing at “College GameDay,” Lexington was buzzing, and Rupp had that unique energy it does before big games. After a stirring intro by Michael Buffer, fans even set a world record for the loudest indoor crowd cheer, led by Steve Zahn, who worked the building into a frenzy. All of the stars were aligned for a special, special night, especially when Kentucky sprinted out to a 12-point lead midway through the first half. The game was theirs.
Unfortunately, as has been the problem way too often lately, there was no follow through. Kentucky fell apart with five minutes left in the first half and never really recovered, losing to Kansas by a final score of 79-73. It was the Cats’ second loss in a row, and although Kansas may currently be ranked #2 in the country, it felt way worse than the score reflected.
I guess we have to talk about it, don’t we?
Where was the defense?!
I remember sitting in Memorial Coliseum before this season and listening to John Calipari tell reporters that this may be his best defensive team yet at Kentucky. That seems like a cruel joke after watching the Jayhawks drive right at the basket over and over again.
“This was, we got out-toughed and we didn’t guard the way we need to guard, which is all curable,” Cal said. “We’ve got to be a better defensive team than we are.”
Do we really? When talking about defensive woes, we knew going in that Josh Jackson was a mismatch, but good grief. The talented freshman had 20 points and 10 rebounds, the only double-double for either team tonight. Simply put, Kentucky could not stop him, and as Derek Willis said afterwards, when the Cats were up by double digits, they couldn’t put their foot on Kansas’ throat.
“I just think we didn’t play winning basketball down the stretch,” Willis said. “Up to a point I think we had them down 10 points maybe? It was looking real good, and you could feel the energy. It just felt like we wanted to break away. Then we just let them back in the game, and they started getting their confidence back thinking they could play with us. That’s just how it goes and they ended up coming up with the right plays. That’s why they won the game.”
Kansas’ zone stymied Kentucky
Meanwhile, Kansas had few problems stopping Kentucky in the second half. It’s no coincidence that when Kansas switched to the zone, the Cats started struggling. The Jayhawks used a mix of 2-3 and triangle and two to stymie the Cats, leading to one of the lowest point totals of the season. When asked about it afterwards, Bill Self said his zone wouldn’t win any awards, but it did an adequate job of shutting down Malik Monk.
“I think it was important,” Self said of the zone. “I don’t know if it was important in transition defense as much, but maybe. But certainly being able to shake Malik and eliminate him scoring off screens, those types of things. They’re not going to be any educational tapes off that zone tonight but I do think we played it pretty well. I thought we shaded shooters and did a pretty good job with it. It helped. We would not have won this unless we switched up. ”
Malik Monk didn’t score for over 25 minutes
The most obvious issue for Kentucky tonight? Malik Monk scored 12 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, and then went scoreless until the 3:21 mark in the second half. By my horrible math, that’s over 25 minutes that Monk didn’t score. Kansas’ zone stifled Monk, and as Calipari said afterwards, when Monk’s not scoring, that’s bad, bad news for the Cats.
“They did a good job of shading toward him, whether it was the zone or they — the triangle and two, they put a man on him, and then again, like I told the staff after, we can’t go eight minutes without him shooting the ball,” Cal said.
A season-high 17 turnovers
Kentucky tied a season high tonight in a bad way, turning the ball over 17 times, leading to 21 points for Kansas. For a team that’s prided itself on transition, the first five minutes excluded, Kentucky sure didn’t look like it tonight.
“And again, 17 turnovers. Again, 10 from our guards. We have been a low, low turnover team until the last three games. Now, all of a sudden we’re averaging 17 turnovers a game, that shouldn’t be who we are,” Cal said.
Derek Willis played his butt off
Derek gave up one huge rebound at the end of the game, but he also kept Kentucky in it most of the second half. Willis had a season-high 18 points, including five threes, and when everyone else was fumbling, he was the one to steady the ship. Unfortunately, Calipari focused on the negative in the postgame remarks.
“Missed a couple rebounds. But I left him in because I felt we needed his shooting. And you know, you know he’s going to give a little bit up defensively and rebounding, but you’re hoping he can make enough shots to make this thing close. And I thought he did a good job on the offensive end, but those rebounds were — and it’s just you and a guy and either he gets it or you get it and you got to fight.”
I love Cal, but Willis’ missed rebound was far from this team’s biggest issue tonight. After the game, Willis once again said he’s worried about his teammates’ discipline and lack of communication on the court, which he’s voiced concern about for several weeks. Suddenly, those comments are haunting.
A one-seed looks out of the question, unless the rest of college basketball continues to fall on its face. Even a two-seed looks doubtful given the current trend. Will this end up being a great story, ala Aaron Harrison and the 2014 squad?
“I can remember in 2014, we were dying and then they got it at one point and all of a sudden we took off,” Calipari said. “This team came together a little bit faster, yet you find out all the execution stuff that I’ve been talking about will come back and haunt you.”
Yeah, March is still a ways away and yeah, there’s time, but man, tonight sucked. When asked by our own Nick Roush after the game how tonight’s loss and the loss to Tennessee were similar, Calipari said as much.
“They stink,” Cal said. “How about that?”