Screenwriters would like Kentucky’s recent games. Coach John Calipari not so much.
Too much drama had Calipari studying game video on the Cats’ flight back from Alabama Saturday. The plot twists that commanded his attention were as fresh as Kentucky’s 67-58 victory over the Tide. An 18-point second-half lead had dwindled to six with 1:40 left. Plenty of time for the Tide to complete a comeback that UK managed to blunt. The problem was a comeback needed to be blunted.
What alarmed Calipari and fulfilled fans of athletic drama was how this was a recurring theme. Four days earlier, Kentucky led LSU by 25 with less than nine minutes left. LSU got within six in the final seconds.
On Jan. 17 at Mississippi State, Kentucky led by 18 mid-way through the second half. The game changed dramatically when Malik Monk received a technical foul for hanging on the rim too long after a dunk. UK had to hang on at the end of an 88-81 victory.
Never miss a local story.
“I’m spending time right now watching tape when we’re up 18, 20, 25, 16, that we give back those points,” Calipari said at a news conference Monday. “So I spent yesterday breaking all that down (and) coming up with ideas.”
It’s the coaches’ responsibility to stop this troubling pattern, not “dudes who were in high school six months ago,” Calipari said.
The major problem?
“Just learning how to play situational basketball,” Calipari said.
Perhaps not wishing to inspire game-planning by Tennessee, which plays at Kentucky Tuesday, Calipari did not go into specifics of what he saw in his video review. There has been consistency in what’s gone wrong, he said. And it’s not solely a mental issue.
“I think it’s as much technical as it is mental,” he said.
And the dwindling leads should not be linked to dissension in the ranks.
“It’s not anything within that’s an issue,’ Calipari said. “It’s just that they don’t know.”
Calipari seemed to return to the idea of too many of what he’d previously called “cute” plays rather than prudent plays that take into consideration time and score.
“You can just sit there and go crazy when they give up a lead or you can figure out why are they doing this,” Calipari said. “Because we’ve done it five times: up 25 and, oh my gosh, we can lose this.”
Of course, UK players might have a reason to be confused about time and score. For months, Kentucky trumpeted the pace it played. The media notes continue to promote the question about whether this is the “Fastest Calipari Team Ever?” The average time of possession is 14.6 seconds, according to noted number cruncher Ken Pomeroy. (The second-fastest Calipari-coached team was the 2009-10 version (16.2 seconds).
But the problem is speed can kill when it leads to quick contested shots with a lead dwindling. The more prudent play would be to get the ball to a low-post threat (didn’t Calipari order the ball to go to Bam Adebayo in the first Kentucky-Tennessee game?) or drive it to the rim.
“You’re going to play somebody that makes you play half-court,” Calipari said. “So a lot of our issues are situational.”
Both ends of the court contain issues, Calipari said.
Help defense — or the lack thereof — has been another issue. The memory of Tennessee forward Lew Evans parting a Blue sea by driving down the middle of the lane to an uncontested layup must remain burned in UK fans’ minds. Once Evans beat his defender outside the lane, no Cat rotated to challenge the shot.
“It’s a basic thing,” Isaac Humphries said. “But for people who have come out of high school on teams where they didn’t really do that, having to work together as a collective unit with the help defense is not as easy as it sounds.”
Humphries saw progress at Alabama, where UK blocked six shots (equaling the second most since December).
“It just proves all we’re doing in practice is really translating on court,” Humphries said, “which is a good sign.”
Tennessee at No. 13 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Tennessee 14-11 (6-6 SEC); UK 20-5 (10-2)
Series: UK leads 152-69
Last meeting: Tennessee won 82-80 on Jan. 24 in Knoxville
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1