John Clay

John Clay: With this Kentucky basketball team, John Calipari must be Mr. Fix-It

Kentucky head coach John Calipari walked to an interview as the teams shook hands after the Kentucky at LSU basketball game at Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rogue, La.,, on Jan. 6, 2016. LSU beat UK 85-67
Kentucky head coach John Calipari walked to an interview as the teams shook hands after the Kentucky at LSU basketball game at Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rogue, La.,, on Jan. 6, 2016. LSU beat UK 85-67 Lexington Herald-Leader

After 14 games, a decent sample size, it’s obvious this 2015-16 Kentucky basketball team is thus far defined by its shortcomings.

The flaws were exposed Tuesday night in Baton Rouge as the Cats were hammered 85-67 by an LSU team that didn’t need a super night from superstar Ben Simmons to tattoo UK with its third-biggest loss (by margin) in the John Calipari era.

Then again, surely this isn’t the team Calipari thought he would be coaching. Surely Cal expected heralded freshman center Skal Labissiere to balance the potent three-guard lineup of Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. Instead, he’s had to tear up the blueprint.

Labissiere isn’t ready for the college game, not right now. He’s pushed around too easily. He’s not strong enough with the ball. He’s lost his starting spot and most of his minutes. His only field goal Tuesday night was a dunk off a missed free throw. The Kentucky bench erupted. Then Skal disappeared.

Labissiere is a great kid who needs experience and extended weight room visits. His improvement will require patience in a place not known for patience. His timeline isn’t fast-track. And he isn’t Calipari’s only concern.

Alex Poythress can sky for an improbable rebound and weakly miss a 1-footer on the same possession. Here are Poythress’ stats in UK’s three losses: four points and five rebounds in 17 minutes at UCLA (fouled out); six points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes versus Ohio State; four points and four rebounds in 26 minutes at LSU (fouled out).

Marcus Lee is an energy player, which is impossible to accomplish from the bench. Against LSU, the junior committed two fouls in the game’s first five minutes. Both were on offense. The first was an illegal screen. The second was a charge. He played five minutes before fouling out.

Meanwhile, Murray can dazzle but also frustrate. The freshman is too easily drawn to misadventure. The perfect example came Tuesday when — largely thanks to Murray — UK had sliced the lead to 58-54. After LSU’s Tim Quarterman drained a three, Murray turned the ball over and compounded the mistake by needlessly fouling Craig Victor as the Tiger converted the first step of a three-point play.

Briscoe bristled Monday as the local press peppered him with Simmons questions. The freshman guard is obviously athletic and a competitor, but his game needs polish. He’s grown worse at the free throw line. In his first seven games, the freshman made 14 of 31 foul shots for 45.2 percent. The last four games, Briscoe is 4-for-20 for 20 percent. Yikes.

Ulis has been the steady hand, scoring 20 or more points in each of his last three games. The sophomore can’t do it alone, however. At UCLA, he was caught on camera shoving Labissiere in a timeout huddle after the freshman failed to secure a loose ball. In Tuesday’s postgame news conference, he called out teammates (not by name) who treated Louisiana like a pleasure trip.

The frustration is understandable. A point guard of Ulis’ ability needs a big man. Unfortunately, Kentucky has gone from last year’s stable of productive bigs to an ongoing search.

You ask: Didn’t Kentucky beat Duke? Yes, but that was before opponents learned it was best to keep Kentucky’s guards out of the lane. Didn’t Kentucky beat Louisville? Yes, but the Cats hit shots that game — 11-for-23 from three-point range — they normally miss.

Can the Cats get better? Yes, of course. It’s a long season. Remember, the 2013-14 team struggled before a famous pre-NCAA Tournament “tweak” did the trick.

“We weren’t very good this game, but you know that’s the great thing about college basketball,” Calipari said Tuesday night. “You’re trying to get better every week. You take a step back, you learn, watch the tape, and figure out what you’ve got to do to get better.”

And as the Hall of Fame coach knows, the to-do list is lengthy.

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