John Calipari knew this would be a tough week
Yes, Kentucky’s gut-punch of a 73-71 loss to LSU on Kavell Bigby-Williams controversial tip-in just before the buzzer Tuesday night is not likely to hurt John Calipari’s Cats all that badly in the grand hoops scheme.
Here are five reasons why:
1. The loss didn’t hurt the Cats with the quants
UK slipped just from fifth to sixth in the NCAA’s NET computer rankings. It even gained ground in Ken Pomeroy’s overall efficiency rankings, climbing from eighth to seventh. After allowing LSU to shoot 51.7 percent from the floor in the second half, the Cats did slip a spot to ninth in the kenpom’s defensive efficiency rankings.
Why didn’t a home loss place a bigger dent in UK’s resume, especially when the Cats squandered a nine-point second half lead? Behold reason No. 2.
2. LSU is better than people think
The Tigers made a statement Tuesday. The SEC is not a two-team league with Tennessee and Kentucky above the rest of the pack. LSU is now 20-4 overall and 10-1 in the league, its lone loss coming by one point to Arkansas.
The Tigers check three important boxes. Will Wade is an impressive young coach. He boasts a terrific point guard in Tremont Waters who can score (15 points Saturday), pass (five assists) and defend (three steals). And LSU is fearless on the glass. Kentucky did win the rebounding battle 39-32, but key rebounds late went LSU’s way.
“We felt like that was the biggest thing coming into this game, not to let them get offensive rebounds,” said UK’s PJ Washington. “The last five minutes, that’s all they were doing.”
3. Maybe the Cats will now believe their coach
Calipari seemed the typical coach after UK’s 71-67 victory at Mississippi State on Saturday. He said that despite the 10-game win streak, everything was not fine. He didn’t like the way his team was playing. He predicted trouble ahead. He was holding every player accountable.
Turned out, Cal wasn’t just grumpy about turning the big 6-0. Over the last two games, UK has been outscored 83-62 in the second half. Could younger Cats be hitting a wall? After all, Cal was blunt in his assessment of freshman point guard Ashton Hagans. “He did not play well at all,” said the coach on Tuesday. Time to fight through that wall.
4. You win or you learn
More Calspeak? Well, yes, but also truth. Unlike recent blowout wins, there’s much the Cats can learn from the season’s fourth loss. Take the game’s final six seconds, after Keldon Johnson’s two free throws tied the game at 71-71, for instance.
LSU in-bounded the ball to Skylar Mays, who went coast-to-coast down the left wing while being tracked by Johnson. When Mays got to the rim, both Washington and E.J. Montgomery attempted to block the shot. That left no one to put a body on either Naz Reid or Bigby-Williams. When Mays missed the shot, Bigby-Williams was able to bat the ball in with his left hand.
If that scenario presents itself again — and it very well might — the Cats at least have been through it once before.
5. Opportunity knocks Saturday
On the one hand, Tuesday’s loss dampens Saturday’s Kentucky-Tennessee matchup at Rupp Arena. On the other hand, Tuesday’s loss makes Saturday’s game against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team even more important.
With Kentucky a No. 2 seed in the early bracket preview by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, the only way the Cats can secure a No. 1 seed is to beat the Vols, at least once and maybe twice — first at home on Saturday, then March 2 in Knoxville.
Someone asked Washington if the loss will be a motivating factor when they take on the Vols Saturday.
“I know it will,” said the sophomore. “We felt like we should have won that game and we didn’t make the plays to win that game at the end of the game. We’re looking to bounce back Saturday.”