Kentucky dropped its second straight game in Las Vegas, this time to one-loss, fifth-ranked Ohio State. Coach Cal called Ohio State the best team in the country prior to the game, although his reasoning — three-point shooting and big man Kaleb Wesson — aren’t the reasons Kentucky lost to the Buckeyes in the CBS Sports Classic. Ohio State hit only six three-pointers and Wesson was held beneath his per-game averages in both scoring and rebounding. Can’t complain about that. Kentucky lost because a number of reasons, including but not limited to…
1. This team can’t shoot.
Coach Cal’s preseason hype of this team’s shooting potential (which he still believes in) is almost comical now because it was another horrible shooting effort by the Wildcats, Nate Sestina not included. Sestina hit five three-pointers in his first complete game back since injuring his wrist in practice before Thanksgiving. He was great for Kentucky. As for everyone else, the outside shooting was horrible, yet they continue to take them at a rate that’s painful to watch at home.
The non-Sestina bunch went 2-for-15 from outside with Maxey and Quickley making the only two, but missing most of the misses:
Tyrese Maxey: 1-6
Immanuel Quickley: 1-5
Ashton Hagans: 0-2
Johnny Juzang: 0-1
Kahlil Whitney: 0-1
I’ll be honest — I could go the rest of my life without seeing Kahlil Whitney jack up another three-pointer on a crucial possession, and I’ll be just happy. He did it again in this one on an important possession in the second half, Kentucky down five and clawing back. I believe the ball landed somewhere at the bottom of the Hoover Dam, and Ohio State got two the other way to extend it back out to seven.
In related news, Johnny Juzang is still cold.
Can we delete the three-point line?
2. Free throw shooting, also not good.
Kentucky’s strength all year has been its accuracy and consistency at the foul line, where the Cats score 24.1% of their total points while shooting 79.5%, the 14th-best percentage in the nation. But against Ohio State, Kentucky didn’t get many trips to the line and didn’t shoot well when they were there, missing five of 13 against the Buckeyes. Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey each went 4-of-6, while Kahlil Whitney took the team’s only other free throw and missed it. It’s a little sad that no one else had an attempt.
On the other side, Ohio State went 21-for-27, and Calipari was surprised his team got doubled up in free throw tries. “Unusual for us for a team to shoot more free throws than us,” he said. “This is an aggressive team, they were physical.”
3. The offense is, well, it’s bad right now.
In Coach Cal’s postgame comments he revealed UK’s game plan to drive and kick when Ohio State collapsed. The problem the Cats ran into, in Cal’s own words: “we just wouldn’t pass the ball.”
“When they did collapse, we tried to shoot it anyway,” he said. “I called my last timeout to make us pass that ball, where EJ threw it up. I called a timeout to say ‘you’re going to pass this ball’ because we came down three straight times with guys wide open and shot it into a guy that’s 6-10.”
Before the final four or five minutes, Cal thought the passing was better and he even pointed out they probably finish with 20 assists to 11 turnovers if they just share the ball down the stretch. Those would’ve been good numbers, but the team forgot how to share toward the end of the comeback attempt.
That was Cal’s explanation of what went wrong offensively. To me — and I’m an overreacting fan, not a basketball coach — I don’t think UK has an offense whatsoever right now, in part because…
4. No go-to scorer.
Say UK is down one, ball in hand, late in a big game. Who do you trust to get you two points? You giving it to Maxey so he can lower his head and bulldoze over everyone in the lane so the fate of the possession is in the officials’ hands? We’ve seen that too many times this week. I vote against the Maxey block/charge attack. So is it the Quickley running hook we saw against Ohio State? His floater is pretty money when the opportunity presents itself, but that’s not your go-to shot when you must get a basket. Hagans attacking? You want that? I know you’re not throwing it inside to Nick Richards or EJ Montgomery. Point being, this team doesn’t have a PJ Washington or a Reid Travis or even a Tyler Herro of a year ago who can take the ball and go get you points. I honestly don’t know who on this team I’d give it to for a must-have score. It’s a problem.
5. Nick Richards offered nothing. EJ Montgomery was a little better but still not good enough.
Richards, the biggest dude on the floor, got ZERO rebounds. He took one shot (it went in!) and his only other contribution to the game was foul trouble, which limited him to only 12 minutes played. This game was a big film game for NBA scouts and Richards completely no-showed in his chance to make himself some money. In two games in Las Vegas he combined for seven points, four rebounds and eight fouls. It’s not a coincidence UK lost both games.
EJ Montgomery, on the other hand, had four points and five boards against Ohio State. Decent game, but still not a box score he’ll put on the refrigerator.
UK’s two bigs have to be better. There is no one else.
BONUS: Silver lining!
Ohio State is really good and Kentucky — a team that is not really good, yet — played them tight on a big stage. The Buckeyes led most of the game (33 minutes, 23 seconds to be exact) but Kentucky was never completely out of it, despite all the things we discussed above. If you’re looking to stay positive going into Christmas, just remind yourself Camp Cal is around the corner, Ashton Hagans continues to be great and Nate Sestina might be Steph Curry in a Patriot League power forward’s body.