Perhaps by March it will be one of “those teams,” as John Calipari puts it. But right here, right now, with a little over a month to Madness, Kentucky has a long way to get there.
No. 2 Kansas offered furthered proof the distance needed on Saturday night, rallying from a 12-point first half deficit to knock off the No. 4 Cats 79-73 in Rupp Arena.
This was the same Kansas that had gone through one distraction after another all week, from a loss at West Virginia on Tuesday night, to a publicized rape investigation in the dorm that houses the KU basketball players — though no Jayhawk is believed to be involved — to the Thursday suspension of top inside reserve Carlton Bragg Jr.
All that didn’t matter. As KU Coach Bill Self said afterward, he felt like his team, though depleted, was even more focused.
And now this is a Kentucky team that is now 1-3 against the four best teams on its schedule — a 97-92 loss to UCLA; a 103-100 win over North Carolina; a 73-70 loss at Louisville and now the six-point loss — and as you might have noticed, two of those losses came at home.
“Toughness and defense,” said Calipari after the games. “Those things are curable.”
Forgive the coach if he’s more optimistic, or putting on a more optimistic front than most of his team’s followers. You would have thought that after Tuesday night’s upset loss at Tennessee, the Cats would have been motivated and determined to turn it around Saturday. Despite all the hype of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” of having Michael “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” Buffer on hand, and Steve Zahn’s push to have the Rupp crowd break an indoor noise record for the Guinness Book of World Records (accomplished), the Cats went quietly in the second half.
Actually, it started the final 3:38 of the first half when Kansas cut an 11-point deficit down to just five, 32-27, at the break. Then Josh Jackson, the Jayhawks’ terrific all-around freshman, buried a couple of three-pointers to start the second half and Kansas was off and running.
On offense, the Jayhawks shot 58.8 percent the second half. After scoring 27 points, the first 20 minutes, Kansas scored 52 points the second half, the most in the final half against a Calipari team since he arrived at Kentucky, the most against the Cats since VMI scored 54 against a Billy Gillispie team on Nov. 14, 2008.
On the other end of the floor, Self deftly switched defenses, going to a 2-3 zone, mixing in some triangle-two and that ground Kentucky’s transition game to a halt, tossed UK’s young guards off balance and kept Malik Monk from getting up shots.
Kentucky’s 17 turnovers tied a season-high. And after scoring his 12th point with a bucket at the 8:21 mark, Monk did not score again until there was 3:16 left in the game. By that time, the Cats trailed by eight.
“He went a long period without a shot,” said Calipari. “That can’t happen.”
The offense has developed into a problem the last couple of games, to be sure, but that’s not the big problem.
“We’ve got to be a better defensive team than what we are right now,” Calipari said.
In the preseason, the coach predicted that by February this should be “the best” defensive team, though we were unsure whether Cal meant best in the nation or his best defensive team at UK. Either way, when asked Friday about that timetable, the coach said, “You sure I didn’t say March?”
Yes, March is what matters. And though we’re close, we’re not quite to February. Still, there’s nothing that we’ve seen that convinces us this is one of the handful of best teams in the country, one of “those teams.”
The four times this season it has gone up against teams of comparable ability, it hasn’t fared well. And it needed that magical 47-point game in Las Vegas from Monk to get that one victory.
Saturday night, in a big-time atmosphere against a big-time team, Kentucky had another chance. Simply put, the Cats couldn’t get it done.
Georgia at No. 4 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F Austin
vs Michigan State
vs Arizona St
vs North Carolina