If there was one thing Kentucky’s 69-60 loss here at Mizzou Arena to the Missouri Tigers told us on Saturday, it was this: The Cats just don’t have that guy. Not consistently.
Last Saturday, in the hills of West Virginia, Kevin Knox was that guy, swishing three-pointers, scoring off drives to the basket, converting on fast breaks. He finished with 34 points as UK rallied from a 17-point deficit to shock the Mountaineers.
That, as Coach John Calipari said afterward, was an open-court game, however. WVU’s pressing style made it an up-and-down, freewheeling game that fit Knox’s style.
Saturday — against Missouri’s plodding, patient, physical style — the 6-foot-9 forward from Tampa, Fla., struggled, finding just six shots and scoring just five points.
“We just wanted to make him work,” said Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin with a huge smile, an obvious nod to the fact Knox had chosen UK over his Tigers in a tight recruiting battle.
Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was that guy, scoring off his creative runs to the hole, hitting big shots when his team needed big shots. He finished with 30 points as the Cats rallied from a 14-point deficit to defeat Vanderbilt by two points in overtime.
Saturday, however, it wasn’t so easy maneuvering through Missouri’s beefy thicket around the goal. The 6-6 freshman missed 11 of his 16 shot attempts. He did score 15 points and contribute six assists, but even that contained an asterisk.
“He still had four or five other plays where he could have passed it to guys,” Calipari said. “The biggest thing is we still refuse to pass the ball. I don’t have an answer for that.”
So when the player Kentucky depends on to be “that guy” isn’t “that guy,” the Cats have nowhere else to turn. Gilgeous-Alexander was the only UK scorer in double figures on Saturday. No other player scored more than eight points.
Kentucky shot 31.3 percent from the floor, its lowest field-goal percentage since shooting 28.1 percent at Texas A&M on Jan. 10, 2015. The Cats won that game. In fact, that was the year Kentucky went 38-1.
The 18 points Kentucky had at halftime — down 28-18 — was the lowest first-half production in the Calipari era and the lowest since UK trailed West Virginia 26-16 on Nov. 29, 2008, before rallying under then- coach Billy Gillispie to win 54-43.
Kentucky averaged 0.858 points per possession, its lowest total since 0.853 against Kansas way back in November. And did we mention UK went 2-for-20 from three-point range while missing its first 13 attempts from that distance?
We could go on, but we won’t. If you watched the game, you’ve suffered enough.
Props to Missouri. As he has proven in stops at Missouri State, Tennessee and California, Martin is an excellent coach. The East St. Louis, Ill., native is back close to home, and the crowd of 15,601 responded to how hard his team played.
But Kentucky faced a similar scenario and atmosphere last Saturday — in fact, Joe Everson, who sang/painted the national anthem in Morgantown, W.Va., did the same thing before Saturday’s game — and rode Knox to what at the time appeared to be a season-altering victory.
Now, after winning a game it should have lost Tuesday against Vanderbilt and losing at Missouri, it feels like this team is back to square one, especially with Calipari admitting he doesn’t have the answers, not now.
CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish recently pointed out that this could be the first Calipari team at Kentucky that will not have a top-10 NBA Draft pick. In the past, Cal had a John Wall or a DeMarcus Cousins or a Brandon Knight or an Anthony Davis or a Julius Randle or a Karl-Anthony Towns or a Malik Monk or De’Aaron Fox whose talent could consistently put the Cats over the top.
This team doesn’t have “that guy,” someone who can carry a team all by himself on a consistent basis. So it has to have players who carry each other, a lesson that so far they have yet to learn.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)