Kentucky’s loss at Tennessee on Tuesday should confirm something John Calipari has said repeatedly since October. Cover your eyes, BBN: Kentucky simply isn’t that good.
Usually by implying, and sometimes quite candidly, the UK coach has told anyone who listened that the Cats would not dominate. Could not dominate. Kentucky would be good, he said, but certainly not good like in 2014-15, when the Cats won their first 38 games.
“We are what we are,” he said after the loss to Tennessee. The implication seemed clear.
At UK’s Media Day, Calipari called the habitual talk of a 40-0 record “the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
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At the annual tip-off luncheon in Louisville, he told the audience of Big Blue believers, “As we speak, we stink.”
Laughter filled the hotel ballroom. No one is laughing now.
Kentucky, 16-6 (and, it’s important to note, not 6-16), remains a competitive team. The Cats do not stink.
“They’re a good team that’s capable of beating just about anybody out there,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Wednesday. “But they’re capable of being beaten by more people than last year and the year before.”
The 84-77 loss at Tennessee showcased two of the reasons Kentucky is more vulnerable than normal.
At the fear of belaboring the point, the Cats lacked a credible post presence on offense. So when Tennessee began rallying from a 21-point first-half deficit, Kentucky could not stall the rush with a player scoring from the post or getting fouled trying to do so or both.
The mind drifted to leads that narrowed against Mississippi State, Auburn and Kansas.
After the Tennessee game, Calipari said Alex Poythress was “our post presence.” But foul trouble and Poythress’s inconsistent play prevented UK from exploiting the Vols’ primary weakness: a lack of size.
A telling moment came when Tennessee took its first lead of the game and Kentucky called timeout with 14:01 left. The Cats went to Poythress in the post, but he fumbled the ball while going up for the shot. Fortunately for UK, he redirected the ball to Tyler Ulis, who made a three-pointer.
Later, Poythress again fumbled the ball as he began a low-post move. This time, the Vols got it.
When “they have a 6-5 guy who can really guard, it’s tough for us,” Calipari said.
As a corollary, Kentucky’s perimeter shooting primarily rests with Jamal Murray and Ulis, the latter making only 30.6 percent of his three-point shots. This invites opponents to collapse defenses in the lane area, which complicates driving lanes.
Bilas pointed out that when Derek Willis got in foul trouble at Kansas, the Jayhawks shifted to a triangle-and-two defense. Murray and Ulis got man-to-man coverage.
Kentucky’s unusual propensity to foul also fueled Tennessee’s comeback. The Cats committed 26 fouls, and UT shot 34 free throws.
In the losses at Kansas and Tennessee, UK made 31 of 45 free throws. The opponents made 60 of 81.
More alarming, that continued a pattern. Opponents have shot more free throws (515) than Kentucky (510).
“When’s the last time they didn’t have an advantage from the foul line?” Bilas said. “A top 25 team, and the other teams are shooting more free throws and making more free throws than you are?
“You’re fouling too much and not guarding the ball effectively.”
The last time a UK team shot fewer free throws than the opposition was 2007-08.
This season’s disparity in free throws grows in Southeastern Conference play. League opponents have taken 239 free throws to UK’s 184.
Kentucky also has fouled more often than opponents: 465-450. That disparity in SEC play is 201-160.
Kentucky averages 21.1 fouls, which is on pace for the most during Calipari’s seven seasons. While new rules to reduce physical play might be a factor, 280 Division I teams foul less frequently. That easily surpasses the previous Calipari-era high of 128 Division I teams fouling less than UK in 2012-13.
Bilas cited another factor to explain how opponents don’t wilt when Kentucky builds a lead. “Teams aren’t afraid,” he said.
That echoed something Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers said before the Tigers beat Kentucky.
“Attack their ‘bigs,’” he said. “They’re not like last year. You know what I’m saying? You couldn’t really attack them because they were blocking every shot.”
Meanwhile, the chorus of observers who say Kentucky is good, but not great, grows.
“I do think Kentucky is beatable this year,” SEC Network analyst Joe Dean Jr. said a few weeks ago. “I really do. They’re obviously not as dominant.”
During the non-conference portion of the schedule, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said, “Kentucky, at least for this year, has come back down to earth.”
But there is good news. No other team is as good as Kentucky was last season.
“I wouldn’t pick any team in this year’s field over the top six last year,” Bilas said. “I think the best team this year would be ranked seventh in last year’s field. Maybe lower.
“It’s not just Kentucky that’s going through this.”
Bilas cited last year’s national champion, Duke, which has dropped out of the top 25. Wisconsin, which lost to Duke in the title game, is also unranked. Kansas and Arizona have taken a step back.
With March Madness more than a month away, there’s time for teams to get better. Good is the new great.
So, why can’t a good Kentucky team make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
“You don’t have to be great to win it this year,” Bilas said. “You just have to be healthy and good.”
Florida at Kentucky
4 p.m. (CBS-27)