If you go back and read the tea leaves, seventh-ranked Kentucky’s 83-75 loss to unranked UCLA here Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in the Big Easy should not have come as that big of a surprise.
For all the accolades thrown Kentucky’s way last Saturday for its win over a good Virginia Tech team, the postgame analysis airbrushed out a rather ominous wart: The Hokies shot 58.2 percent, the second-highest field goal percentage against Kentucky in the John Calipari Era.
Kentucky survived that day. Some hot-three point shooting of its own helped. So did a raucous home crowd in Rupp Arena. Saturday, however, the circumstances were different, starting with a half-full Smoothie King Center. It was, after all, two days before Christmas. And when it’s football season, New Orleans couldn’t care less about college basketball. Thus a bad date and a bad venue make for a bad crowd.
And, despite what we might have heard, UCLA is not a bad team. Before Saturday, the Bruins were, well, unsettled. The embarrassing incident in China in which three UCLA freshmen were accused of shoplifting — and one of the three being named LiAngelo Ball, who has since moved on to Lithuania — hung over the program until Friday when the school announced that Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will remain suspended for the rest of the season.
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What head coach Steve Alford lost in bodies he might have gained in finality. Knowing finally where they stood, the Bruins looked like a much better team than the one that blew a 15-point lead in an overtime loss at Michigan and the one that lost at home by 14 to Cincinnati.
“I think we put it all together today,” Alford said.
“Give them credit,” said UK sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who did what he could, scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds. “They hit some big shots.”
There’s the rub, however. If the Bruins did not shoot the ball quite as well (47.5 percent) as the Hokies, they shot it well enough, nailing a dozen three-pointers.
Kentucky switched back and forth from man-to-man to zone defense, using the full-court press, backing off the full-court press, just to keep the Cats in the game.
“I don’t like coaching that way,” Calipari said afterward.
Not that everything was terrific on the offensive end, either. After shooting 55 percent over its last five games, the Cats slumped to 42.6. Quade Green was a near no-show, going 1-for-7 from the field. PJ Washington continues to disappear at times. After making four triples last week, Hamidou Diallo missed four of his five three-point attempts Saturday.
It’s the defense that gives reason for concern, because defense is what Calipari’s best teams do best. It bears repeating that for all the NBA talent he recruits, Calipari’s stock-and-trade has been good, grind-it-out defensive teams.
Calipari blamed Saturday on a “different type of pick-and-roll defense” he tried that failed. Live and learn. Guarding the perimeter, however, Kentucky’s above-average length should be bothering opponents’ marksmen. Yet the Bruins were the fourth consecutive foe to make at least 10 three-pointers on the Cats.
“I don’t know how many they made,” said Calipari of the Bruins, “but they made every one down the stretch they needed to make.”
Calipari also placed part of the blame on his team’s youth, of course. He’s starting five freshmen, as you know. That’s all true. But it’s also true the Cats are going to be led by freshmen all season long. Then some will leave, and some will stay, but either way the goal is to first win the SEC and second, and more importantly, go deep in the NCAA Tournament.
You judge a team’s readiness toward achieving those goals not by its performances against the cupcakes, but how it does against Power Five foes such as Kansas, Virginia Tech and UCLA. Against that group, UK is 1-2.
Saturday’s warts-and-all analysis: Kentucky’s offense should return, but the defense needs work.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)