John Clay: Cats' offense needs a quick fix

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 2, 2014 

At Kentucky, March Madness has already begun.

The coach is mad.

The fans are mad.

The players are mad — or sad.

The Cats are reeling, suffering consecutive losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, first at home, second on the road.

Had not a loose ball fallen into the hands of Julius Randle for a game-winning basket against LSU with four seconds remaining in overtime, Kentucky could be mired in a three-game losing streak, placing Big Blue Nation on Severe Panic Alert, if it's not there already.

Untucked (shirt) and unplugged (mouth), John Calipari got ejected from Saturday's crash and burn in the Carolinas, skipped the post-game press conference and released a statement saying, in part, "Proud of the guys for not giving up but we all have to figure out what do we each have to do to get this team right."

There is a lot to fix and a short time to fix it. Alabama comes to Rupp Arena on Tuesday. The Cats visit No. 1-ranked Florida on Saturday. The SEC Tournament commences next week in Atlanta.

With such limited time for repairs, it's better to focus on an area of immediate need. That would be the offense, as in what in the world has happened to the offense?

In the manic meltdown that was Saturday, the Cats shot 17.2 percent the first half and a Calipari-era low 26.9 percent for the game. This followed a 34.2 percent effort against Arkansas.

Over the past six games, the Cats have made 130 of 340 field goals for 38.2 percent. Yikes.

Why? Calipari has shaped his scheme around drives to the basket. Problem is, opponents now know Calipari has shaped his scheme around drives to the basket.

With UK lacking a consistent perimeter shooter — 27 percent three-point shooting the last three games — defenses have learned to stack the lane in anticipation. Thus the offense looks cluttered and confused. Once a driver takes aim for the basket, passing is for emergency use only.

As a result, dribble drives have become hope missions: hoping (a) the ball somehow goes in the basket, or (b) the official blows the whistle.

No wonder Calipari was so upset with the officials Saturday. If the shots won't fall, he needs the calls.

Once in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free rankings for offensive efficiency, the Cats have dropped to 20th. Plus, they are young enough to allow the missed shots to affect other parts of the game. Turnovers have increased. The failure to get back on defense remains a chronic problem.

To get the offense going, the Cats need to get Julius Randle going. Translation: Get the forward more shots.

Aaron Harrison (4 of 16) and James (4 of 12) combined to take four times as many shots on Saturday as did Randle, who missed six of his seven attempts.

At Duke, fab freshman Jabari Parker is averaging 13.8 shots a game. At Kansas, fab freshman Andrew Wiggins is averaging 11.7 shots a game. Randle is averaging 9.6 shots a game.

True, the Texas native lacks a perimeter game to offset the defensive double-teams. He has taken all of 13 three-pointers and has made three. He's prone to volume turnovers. But the Cats have to find a way to get Randle into the rhythm or flow that's clearly lacking.

Calipari should take a page from the playbook of South Carolina's football coach, Steve Spurrier, famous for saying, "I just need to draw up some better plays."

Confidence is lacking, too. For Aaron Harrison's hubris on Saturday, saying the team would end up being "a great story" because "we know what we're capable of doing," the Cats no longer own the intimidation factor.

Arkansas surely didn't look intimidated at Rupp. And there was a tangible moment in the first half Saturday when you could tell that South Carolina, despite its 3-12 conference mark, suddenly knew it could not only play with this Kentucky team, but that it could win.

And it did.

Back in November, if you told someone that could happen to Kentucky come March, they would have said you had gone mad.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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