In explaining Kentucky’s recent slippage, John Calipari mentioned an entity all too often ignored: the other team.
Kentucky’s games are not a demonstration or a coronation. They are a competition. What the opposing team does impacts UK’s performance.
With its dependence on so-called one-and-done players, Kentucky benefits early in seasons when opponents have limited knowledge. “No one knows our team,” Calipari said.
“But then there comes a point they say, ‘All right, here’s what you’ve got to take away’ and ‘here’s what you’ve got to make hard.’”
For instance, take transition offense. Or, more precisely, take away transition offense. UK scored 10 or more fast-break points in 14 of the season’s first 15 games. The first three Southeastern Conference games falsely suggested the joyride would not end (20 fast-break points at Ole Miss, then a season-high 24 against Arkansas and 15 more against Texas A&M).
But opponents took notice of how important transition offense was to Kentucky. As a result, UK has had double-digit fast-break points in only three of the last 13 games. The last two games saw season lows: six at Georgia, then two at Missouri.
“All of a sudden, they shoot the ball, and the coaches ran back (on defense),” Calipari joked. “The players ran back. And the guy who shot it, before it left his hand he’s running back. OK, now you’re not getting so many layups.”
Opponents are also putting a high priority on limiting turnovers, which can fuel Kentucky’s transition offense. Missouri had nine, which marked only the fifth time an opponent had single-digit turnovers. Georgia had 11.
Now, Calipari said, Kentucky must make a countermove.
“They’re taking away our best stuff,” he said, “and we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, what do we do.’”
Florida’s 88-66 victory on Feb. 4 marked the Gators’ largest margin of victory in the series’ 137 games. It was also the second-largest margin of defeat in Calipari’s eight seasons as UK coach. Only an 88-58 loss at Tennessee in UK’s first game without Nerlens Noel in 2013 has been worse.
“Super,” Malik Monk said.
Monk said some of the damage was self-inflicted.
“We really didn’t get beat like that,” he said. What he called “little mistakes” piled up. “I mean, we did that to ourselves.”
Monk and Bam Adebayo cited a slow start as a problem.
“We came out kind of lackadaisical,” Adebayo said.
Added Monk: “We want to come out with a lot of energy. If we do that, I think we’ll be fine. They did put a whupping on us down there. We’ve got to bring something back.”
Draft stock on rise?
After Adebayo scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds at Missouri, Calipari put the performance in the context of an emphatic response to those moving the freshman down in NBA mock drafts.
The UK coach touted Adebayo as a prime draft pick and said NBA executives that passed on him risked ultimately getting fired.
This came as news to Adebayo on Friday. “I have nothing to say about that,” he said. “I’m worried about our game tomorrow and just how we’re going to fight.”
Of his previous standing in mock drafts, Adebayo said, “I paid it no mind. I worry about my teammates, and I worry about basketball. All the social media stuff, I don’t worry about.”
NCAA or bust
Monk said Calipari is not overly concerned about winning a conference championship.
“Cal plays for the NCAA Tournament,” Monk said. “He told us that before. We’re just fighting for the NCAA Tournament.”
ESPN analyst Sean Farnham probably was not swayed by both UK and Florida downplaying the importance of the game.
“This is the circled game on the schedule,” he said. “Florida wins both games (against UK), they’re SEC champions. If Kentucky wants to lay claim to it, they’ve got to protect their home floor.”
Farnham said he expected Kentucky to rise to the occasion.
“These are the games we usually see out of Kentucky a very focused team,” he said. “A driven team. And a team that rises to the challenge. This is a good challenge. This is a good game and this is a good platform for the SEC to show how strong the top of the conference is.”
▪ Florida outrebounded UK 54-29 in the first game. “We’ve got to be way more physical than they are,” Monk said. “They were more physical than we were down there.”
▪ Brad Nessler and Jim Spanarkel will call the game for CBS.