John Clay

The grind has not been kind to this Kentucky basketball team

For the number-crunchers, here was the popular stat after Kentucky lost at home to Kansas on Saturday night: Against the best four teams on its schedule, the Cats are 1-3.

Now, after further investigation, here’s a stat with the same outcome: When scoring less than 85 points in a game, the Cats are also 1-3.

The lone victory in the group came at the Champions Classic in New York way back on Nov. 15 when Kentucky dominated Michigan State 68-49.

Since then, Kentucky lost 73-70 at Louisville, 82-80 at Tennessee last Tuesday and 79-73 to the second-ranked Jayhawks before a jacked-up crowd at Rupp Arena in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

On the flip side, when Kentucky scores at least 85 points, the Cats are 16-1.

In other words, you don’t have to be a “Basketball Bennie” to understand the significance of those two stats.

Kentucky loves to run, to get the ball and go so it can use its blinding speed and impressive athleticism on the fast break. That’s when the Cats are at their best.

But if you can slow down the Cats — as Louisville did at the KFC Yum Center, as Tennessee did (to a degree) at Thompson-Boling Arena last week and as Kansas did on Saturday — you can change the entire nature of Kentucky’s game.

Then, freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are forced to play an execution game, a grind-it-out game — which has not worked to their advantage. In those three losses, that duo has a combined 16 assists and 21 turnovers.

That’s what Kansas did Saturday, especially when Jayhawks Coach Bill Self smartly ditched his man-to-man defense and switched to a 2-3 zone, with some triangle-and-two mixed in for good measure. The strategic move brought the expected track meet to a grinding halt, and this Kentucky team is not one that likes to grind.

Proof: Kentucky committed 17 turnovers Saturday, matching its season high from a November game against Valpariaso.

“We thought a half-court game was in our favor,” said Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Saturday.

It’s not just on the offensive end. Limit the number of possessions and Kentucky’s breakdowns on defense are amplified. In a high-possession game, the Cats’ offensive fireworks can overcome some of the team’s defensive liabilities. Not so in a low-tempo game.

You might be asking why is there all this harping on the UK defense? After all, don’t the advanced metrics argue that the Cats are one of the better defensive teams in the nation? Well, yes. Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free stats rank Kentucky 12th in defensive efficiency.

There’s a difference between defensive numbers and getting a stop when you need one. Kentucky couldn’t get that stop at Tennessee when the Vols scored on nine of their last 10 possessions to pull out a two-point win.

The Cats couldn’t get stops in the second half Saturday night when Kansas shot 58.8 percent from the floor. After missing all eight of their three-point attempts in the first half, the Jayhawks were 5 for 11 from three in the second half.

The two biggest baskets in the entire game were the first two of the second half, when Jackson hit back-to-back threes.

“I thought that got us going,” Self said.

For foes, the key is to keep Kentucky from going fast. Slow the Cats down. Make them execute. Exploit their inexperience. Make them grind.

When Kentucky scores less than 85 points

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

11/15/16

vsMichigan State

69

48

W

12/21/16

@Louisville

70

73

L

1/24/17

@Tennessee

80

82

L

1/28/17

Kansas

73

79

L

When Kentucky scores 85-or-more points

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

11/11/16

Stephen F Austin

87

64

W

11/13/16

Canisus

93

69

W

11/20/16

Duquense

93

59

W

11/23/16

Cleveland State

101

70

W

11/25/16

UT-Martin

111

76

W

11/28/16

vsArizona St

115

69

W

12/3/16

UCLA

92

97

L

12/7/16

Valparaiso

87

63

W

12/11/16

vsHofstra

96

73

W

12/17/16

vsNorth Carolina

103

100

W

12/29/16

@Ole Miss

99

76

W

1/3/17

Texas A&M

100

58

W

1/7/17

Arkansas

97

71

W

1/10/17

@Vanderbilt

87

81

W

1/14/17

Auburn

92

72

W

1/17/17

@Miss St

88

81

W

1/21/17

S Carolina

85

69

W

Tuesday

Georgia at No. 4 Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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