Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that No. 4 (for now) Kentucky fails to rebound from Tuesday’s surprise loss at Tennessee and falls to No. 2 (for now) Kansas in Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
That would mean the Cats had lost to three of the four best teams on their 2016-17 schedule.
In order of appearance, there was the Dec. 3 visit from UCLA, which pulled off a 97-92 win over UK at Rupp. On Dec. 17, Malik Monk’s monster 47-point game helped Kentucky take down North Carolina 103-100. Four days later, Dec. 21, there was the Cats’ KFC Yum Center visit which ended in a 73-70 loss to archrival Louisville.
Now comes Kansas, which despite the 85-69 drubbing it took at Press Virginia, er West Virginia, on Monday, is 18-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big 12 and still considered among the handful of top teams in college basketball.
Kentucky is considered to be in that handful as well, or at least the Cats were until hitting a trip wire Tuesday on Rocky Top.
A double-digit favorite, John Calipari’s club trailed the final 29 minutes to a team that was 3-4 in the SEC. UK allowed the Vols to shoot 53 percent from the floor in the second half. The Cats made careless errors on offense and failed to make big stops on defense.
“We can’t play the way we’re playing right now and win,” Calipari said.
Let this be said about the Kentucky coach: He warned us this was coming. Even as his team tallied victories over inferior competition, Calipari’s postgame comments fell well below unconditional praise. He freely voiced concerns about his young team’s lapses into “AAU mode” on offense, its failure to focus on defense and its inability to always follow directions.
Road signs pointed toward danger. Vanderbilt is hardly a juggernaut this season yet the Commodores pushed the Cats to the final horn before falling 87-81 in Nashville. Ben Howland’s young Mississippi State team stormed back from a large deficit before losing 88-81 to Kentucky in Starkville. Where Vandy and MSU came up just short, Tennessee finished the job.
“Maybe we got arrogant,” Calipari said Tuesday night after dropping to 3-4 at Thompson-Boling Arena as the UK coach.
The real culprit is a lack of improvement on defense. Back in the preseason, Calipari said his team should stand out on that end of the floor come February. Well, February is less than a week away and the Cats still have trouble stopping opponents’ drives to the rim and take too many unnecessary chances.
There was a play Tuesday in which De’Aaron Fox attempted a low-percentage steal and failed, leaving a Vol wide open for a mid-range jumper that swished. Calipari immediately hopped out of his seat, arms raised, and yelled at his freshman guard, “Why did you do that?”
That can’t happen Saturday. As usual, Kansas is Kansas. The Jayhawks feature a talented veteran backcourt in Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, a fabulous freshman in Josh Jackson, an improved center in Landen Lucas and a Hall of Fame-quality coach in Bill Self.
The visitors also figure to arrive at Rupp fully motivated after absorbing that 16-point drubbing in Morgantown, a result that rudely snapped an 18-game Kansas win streak.
To add to the intrigue, we’re entering NCAA seeding season. On Feb. 11, the tournament selection committee will reveal its non-binding list of top 16 seeds, a peek into the members’ brains a month before Selection Sunday.
Bottom line: Considering the nation’s low regard for the quality of basketball currently being played in the SEC, Saturday might be Kentucky’s last best chance to make a strong impression.
And a 2-2 mark against your top four opponents would sure look nicer than 1-3.
Kentucky-Kansas last 10 meetings
Dec. 9, 1990
Dec. 1, 1998
March 14, 1999
New Orleans (NCAA)
Jan. 9, 2005
Jan. 7, 2006
March 18, 2007
Nov. 15, 2011
April 2, 2012
New Orleans (NCAA)
Nov. 18, 2014
Jan. 30, 2016