In assessing the Southeastern Conference race, ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg sees Kentucky as a contender. But the Cats must make dramatic changes to win the championship, he said.
“Kentucky is going to be in the conversation,” Greenberg said on a teleconference Wednesday. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Then Greenberg added, “I don’t like their chemistry, right now, and that makes it tough. Their shooters don’t defend. Their defenders don’t really make shots.”
Kentucky has not decided on player roles, a rotation or the combination of players that can bring maximum results, Greenberg said.
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“They almost need (Derek) Willis on the court, but you give up something defensively and rebounding,” Greenberg said. “It’s hard because you don’t know what you’re getting from Marcus (Lee) and Alex (Poythress). . . . They haven’t shown consistency.”
Greenberg saluted UK Coach John Calipari as proficient at finding the answers to such questions. There’s a proven track record of studying players and finding ways to bring out their best, Greenberg said.
“He is fanatical at trying to find out who they are, what makes them tick and getting them to play together,” Greenberg said. “You never count out Cal.”
For example, Greenberg cited Kentucky’s startling turnaround two years ago. The Cats played in fits and starts through the season. UK lost four of its final seven regular-season games, the nadir coming in a 72-67 loss at South Carolina. The game wasn’t that close, and South Carolina finished 13th in the SEC race that season.
After what Calipari trumpeted as a “tweak,” which turned out to be advising Andrew Harrison to look to pass to the perimeter when defenses reacted to his penetrating drives, Kentucky advanced to the NCAA Tournament championship game.
“It’s only January,” Greenberg said. “We’ve seen (Calipari) flip the switch in February.
“Let’s not forget that South Carolina debacle a couple of years ago. . . . But I don’t think he has the same pieces, though.”
Assistant coach John Robic, who substituted for Calipari at a news conference later Monday, discouraged anyone comparing this Kentucky team to 2013-14.
“I don’t think there is a whole lot of comparisons you can make,” he said. “We’ll have to see where it winds up.”
After UK lost at Auburn, Calipari suggested that practices would be rougher and tougher. Like football, he said.
When asked if UK’s practices post-Auburn resembled football, Robic said, “We’re letting them play.”
Skal Labissiere vouched for that.
“Practices have been more physical,” he said.
Calipari has emphasized the need to build on second-half leads since the Auburn game, Robic said. Last week, Kentucky nearly saw a 20-point lead disappear against Mississippi State and then lost at Auburn after holding a 12-point second-half lead.
“It’s winning time,” Robic said. “It’s either a winning play or it’s not a winning play.”
Point guard Tyler Ulis has been outspoken about the need to make winning plays.
“Tyler just wants to win,” Robic said.
When asked if Ulis’ competitiveness will rub off on his teammates, Robic said, “I think it will. It did the last couple days. That’s what we expect and that’s what we demand.”
Jamal Murray said Ulis was not the only UK player who needs to play with more competitive zeal.
“We’ve got to pick up our slack and help each other out,” he said.
Of Ulis’ willingness to show frustration, Murray said, “We’re all in the same boat.”
Greenberg and fellow ESPN analyst Jay Williams tabbed Texas A&M as the favorite to win the SEC this season.
“Right now, I think the SEC goes through Texas A&M,” Greenberg said. “I think they are the most complete team in the league.”
Of course, the season is not over. No team has clinched the league championship nor mathematically been eliminated from the race.
“No need to panic,” Robic said. “There has been a process.”
Robic’s answer to a question about the players needing more coaching this season reflected the call for calm.
“We’re not coaching any more or any less,” Robic said. “This is what we do. It’s just with a different group of guys.”
Kentucky at Arkansas
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 13-4 (3-2 SEC), Arkansas 9-8 (3-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 27-11
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-63 on March 15, 2015, in the championship game of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
Note: Wednesday’s games not included.