Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 76-68 loss at South Carolina:
1. Call this the Collapse in Columbia
With 11:30 left in the second half, Kentucky was cruising at the Colonial Life Center, up 14 points on Frank Martin’s Gamecocks, who couldn’t make a shot to save their lives. Never mind that the Cats had not yet made a three-pointer or they were committing too many turnovers or there was still more than a quarter of the game left. This looked like an easy-peasy road win for the team in blue.
And then Hamidou Diallo intentionally fouled South Carolina’s Maik Kotsar. Diallo denied to head coach John Calipari that he did any such thing. Cal wasn’t buying it. “You pulled the guy’s shirt out of his pants,” said the coach.
Next thing you know, the host Gamecocks were on a 7-0 run. The crowd, aching for something to cheer about, got engaged. Martin’s constant fight-fight-fight mantra took hold and, well, as Calipari said afterward, “We looked like freshmen.”
Salient stat: Over the game’s final 11:29, South Carolina outscored Kentucky 33-11.
“This shows we don’t know how to close games out,” said Knox afterward, but Calipari didn’t quite buy that explanation in the postgame press conference. As he correctly pointed out, the Cats had not been in this situation before, up 14 on the road.
“Unwarranted arrogance,” Calipari called it and in the end it lead to a road loss for a Kentucky team now 4-2 in league play with Florida coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday night.
2. As the point guard goes, so goes the Cats?
It’s hard to ignore the following data: In Kentucky’s four SEC victories, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 87 points, an average of 21.8 points per game. In Kentucky’s two SEC losses, the freshman has scored nine points, an average of 4.5.
South Carolina had Gilgeous-Alexander scouted exceptionally well, cutting off his trademark drives, bodying him away from the lane and keeping him for getting the ball to the basket.
The result: SAG ended up with six points, three rebounds, zero assists and six turnovers.
“Our point guard didn’t have a very good game,” Calipari said.
Of course, Gilgeous-Alexander has had to shoulder the load by himself these last three games without fellow point guard Quade Green, out with a back strain.
“The guy I think they miss is Quade Green,” said Martin after the game.
It wasn’t all of Gilgeous-Alexander, of course. As a team, Kentucky committed 16 turnovers to just nine for South Carolina. UK’s assist-to-turnover ratio was minus-9. South Carolina’s was plus-two.
With the Carolina crowd roaring, Kentucky made just six of 14 free throws the second half and 23 of 36 for the game for 63.9 percent. The Cats barely kept their nation-leading streak of games with at least one made three-pointers (1,031) by going 1-for-11 from behind the arc. Knox hit the one, but that was in eight attempts.
And here might be the most telling stat: South Carolina rebounded 32.6 percent of its missed shots, of which there were plenty. The Gamecocks shot 37.7 percent and won. Meanwhile, Kentucky shot 44.9 percent, but the Cats rebounded just 18.8 percent of their misses.
“Rebounding and defense is what keeps you in games,” said Martin.
3. The long-awaited debut of Jarred Vanderbilt
The 6-foot-9 freshman from Nashville, out with a broken foot since the week before practice officially began in September, made his collegiate debut with 13:09 left in the first half.
By game’s end, Vanderbilt finished with six points, five rebounds, three assists, two turnovers and a blocked shot in 14 minutes.
He showed some of the skills we had been told about, including his passing skills. As Calipari has said, Vanderbilt is a willing passer, but he’s also a good one.
He’s not a perimeter shooting threat, but he can handle the ball. He played point guard on a few possessions as Gilgeous-Alexander fought foul trouble. But Vanderbilt did show the makings of a physical player, though we will probably see more of that when he becomes more confident.
“He was pretty good for first time out,” Calipari said.
“I saw Jarred play a lot in high school, I think he’s real good,” Martin said. “He’s very talented. You saw some of his abilities today with those kind of mid-range floaters when you guard him with a little smaller guy. If you guard him big, he goes off the bounce.”
So there’s your silver lining. If healthy, and once he acquires some experience and conditioning, Vanderbilt should be a help to a team that has played well but took a bit of a step back on Tuesday. Not necessarily an unexpected step back, but one nonetheless.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)