Three take-aways from Kentucky’s 82-80 loss at Tennessee:
1. On this night, the offense couldn’t cover up the bad defense
After the two-point loss at Thompson-Boling, UK coach John Calipari blamed his team’s youth, saying his guys aren’t playing the way they need to play to help the team win. He cited just 14 assists, missed shots and not getting the ball inside to center Bam Adebayo until the second half.
As much as anything, however, the Cats were hurt on the defensive end of the floor. Tennessee shot 53.3 percent from the floor in the second half. Rick Barnes’ team is young, too, but the Vols turned the ball over just nine times, compared to 18 assists. Coming into the game, Tennessee was averaging 18 assists and 11 turnovers in its 10 wins, and 10.6 assists and 15.6 turnovers in its nine losses.
Barnes followed the blueprint that Rick Pitino used to beat the Cats in Louisville in December. Don’t jack up threes. Tennessee took just 10 three-pointers, making five. Take shots close to the basket. The Vols were able to drive the ball, a problem Kentucky has faced all season.
Two plays, late in the game, stuck out. After UK had cut the lead to 75-72, Barnes ran a perfect in-bounds play under the Tennessee basket when Robert Hubbs took a pass close to the goal and scored to put the Vols up five with 1:06 to play.
Two possessions later, after a De’Aaron Fox three-pointer had sliced the Vols lead to 78-75, the Vols worked the ball until finally Grant Williams, a muscular freshman forward, was able to isolate on Derek Willis. Williams backed Willis to the basket and then scored over the UK forward for an 80-75 Tennessee lead with 14 seconds left. Ballgame.
Said Calipari of the way his guys played defense, “We were more concerned about what we were going to do on offense.”
2. Did Kentucky get caught in a trap game?
At halftime, with Kentucky down 39-34, just the second time this year the Cats had trailed at the break -- UCLA was the first -- the talk was that the team exhibited bad body language from warmups through the beginning of the game.
There were signs of that all night. Isaiah Briscoe missed a wide-open layup on a fast break. At least twice, Fox forced drives into traffic in transition and took wild shots. At one point, Monk simply dribbled the ball off the side of his leg and out of bounds.
To their credit, the Cats didn’t fold their tents. Down 11 in the second half, they crawled back to within two points at 66-64 with five minutes left and then again at 68-66 with 3:45 remaining. They could never get closer, however.
After the 16-point win over a ranked South Carolina team last Saturday and ahead of a match-up with No. 2 Kansas on Saturday in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, there is the sneaking suspicion that maybe the Cats got caught peeking ahead to the Jayhawks.
Bam Adebayo disagreed, saying the team was ready to play but simply came up short. Others, however, were more willing to accept a different explanation.
3. A simple bump in the road or a more worrisome pothole?
Maybe it’s because Calipari is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC title game, but on Tuesday night, the UK coach was quoting the Patriots’ leader.
“Tom Brady made a statement that these guys aren’t listening to and I told them last night, ‘Doing what’s right for the team sometimes may not be right for you but that’s how you win.' Do what’s right for the team, not necessarily what’s right for the individual player. And I’m not getting through to some guys.”
Translation: Too much individual play.
Calipari referred to his team’s assist total. The Cats had 14 assists compared with 14 turnovers.
“We’ve had games where we had 30 assists,” he said.
Indeed, Kentucky had 33 assists against Arizona State, 25 against Cleveland State, 24 against UT-Martin and Ole Miss. That number has slowly dropped of late. And it’s not just the assists; it’s the sloppy play.
Here’s a play on the offensive end that was symbolic of the night. Down by 10 points, UK had scored five straight points to chop the lead in half. Now the Cats had the basketball again with a chance to cut the deficit to three. Instead, after cutting across the top of the circle, Monk tried to make a fancy no-look pass inside that was picked off by the Vols. UT’s Jordan Bowden scored on a fast break at the other end for a 64-57 lead with 7:23 left.
“You cannot do this stuff they’re doing and win basketball games,” Calipari said.
True, it’s just one game. True, it was Kentucky’s first loss in SEC play, and its first loss since that Louisville game more than a month ago. It is also true that, as Calipari keeps repeating, this is a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.
Still, Kentucky entered the night ranked No. 4 in the nation. It has the ability to be, as Calipari likes to say, “one of those teams” come March. It can’t let what happened Tuesday night become a trend.
Said Calipari. “The good news is it’s still January.”
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F. Austin
vs. Michigan State
vs. Arizona St.
vs. North Carolina