John Clay: Arkansas loss shows Cats are not improving

Freshman-led team isn't learning from mistakes

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 24, 2011 

Kentucky Coach John Calipari talked with guard DeAndre Liggins during Wednesday night's loss at Arkansas.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Now that this team has become the first Kentucky basketball team to lose six SEC road games in a season since the conference expanded, one question begs to be asked.

Has this Kentucky basketball team gotten better?

The answer is no.

A team can't be progressing when it continues to turn in repeat performances, especially on the road. A team can't be progressing when it can't get over the hump in close games.

A team can't be progressing when it fails to beat a mediocre-at-best Arkansas team, as Kentucky lost 77-76 in overtime to the Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night.

What's troubling is not so much the mistakes that are costing John Calipari's team, mistakes that caused it to fall to a miserable 1-6 on the road in conference play, but the fact that the same mistakes keep happening.

DeAndre Liggins picked up a technical foul at Vanderbilt, giving the Commodores a chance at free points in a close game. Again this night, Liggins picked up a technical foul, giving the Razorbacks a chance at free points in a close game.

Arkansas took advantage, scoring seven straight points, turning a 43-40 deficit into a 47-43 lead. Kentucky could never really wrestle the momentum back after that.

As in previous losses, turnovers down the stretch crippled the Cats' cause. This time, with UK up 76-75 in overtime, Brandon Knight made a bad bounce pass that was intercepted, leading to a Marcus Britt fast-break layup for what turned out to be the winning margin.

That wasn't the only killer. Calipari lamented the three rebounds his team failed to get at crucial points of the game, something he said happened in losses at both Alabama and Florida.

"Three rebounds," Calipari said, and kept saying.

Arkansas' post play was a killer. Yes, Rotnei Clarke scored 26 points, but Marshawn Powell was the Razorbacks' star. The 6-foot-7 sophomore scored 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and at times abused the visitors around the rim.

Inbounds plays were damaging at both ends. In the first half, the Kentucky defense let Arkansas score when the Hogs were taking the ball out of bounds with just one second left on the shot clock. A few minutes later, the Cats were inbounding the ball and somehow let the shot clock expire for a turnover.

Then, on the final play, with 1.8 seconds left and UK inbounding the ball under its own basket, the Cats could do no better than Brandon Knight's forced three-pointer from the deep left corner. The shot never had a chance. It sailed over the rim.

That was Knight's 23rd shot of the night. He made eight, but he was 1-for-8 from three. And I'm not sure any team can win a basketball game with that pronounced a lack of balance.

But then, maybe Knight had to shoot considering his fellow freshman star, Terrence Jones, was a no-show for much of the game. The Portland native finally got going near the end of regulation, but his presence was needed in the first 35 minutes. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Quietly.

Yes, this is a young team, led by freshmen. But the coach's adage is that by this time of the year there is no such thing as freshmen. They are sophomores now — especially when they play 43 minutes, as did Knight, and 39 minutes, as did Jones.

Too many minutes? Yes. The Cats looked tired at the end of a grueling 45-minute game. But 27 games into the season, that's no big surprise. Calipari doesn't trust his bench. That's not going to change.

(He didn't trust Doron Lamb, either. The freshman played just 16 minutes.)

Nor has Calipari found a way to push these Cats through a troubling bottleneck toward being a better team.

"We've got a good team," Calipari said, trying to spin a bit of bright light on a rather dark loss.

Truth is, it started the year as a good team. And it hasn't gotten much better.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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