Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 66-64 loss to Florida on Saturday:
1. The hardest working man in Rupp Arena after the game was John Calipari
Here was his reaction to the two-point home loss to the Gators that dropped the Cats to 14-5 overall and 4-3 in the SEC:
“Let me say this, and start by saying this: We’re going to be fine now.”
And this: “I was worried after the South Carolina now. I’m not worried after this. We’ll be fine. I was worried after Vanderbilt, to be honest with you , and we won that game. They do this and they stay the course and this who we are, we’ll be fine.”
Was Cal trying too hard to put a positive spin on the first home loss of the season? According to freshman center Nick Richards, it wasn’t the same Calipari in the locker room in front of his team as the coach was in front of the media.
“He was on us,” said Richards.
“He pointed out some good things,” said sophomore Wenyen Gabriel. “But I know he’s frustrated.”
After back-to-back losses — South Carolina in Columbia on Tuesday; Florida in Lexington on Saturday – perhaps the coach doesn’t want his young team to be overwhelmed by negativity. And there were plenty of reasons to be negative.
Yes, Florida shot just 33.3 percent, but Kentucky only shot 40 percent. The Cats were just four-of-17 from three-point range for 23.5 percent. And they committed 16 turnovers. Six of those were walking violations.
“Those, I can cure those,” said Calipari.
Maybe he can. Maybe, as the coach said, there’s no reason to hit the panic button. And if you’re hitting the panic button, Calipari said, don’t sit by the coach.
Or maybe, as is often the case with Calipari, it’s all about the message and the mental state of his team. If Kentucky tries as hard as its coach did Saturday, it will win a lot of games from here on out.
2. Right now, this is not a good offensive team
According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, Kentucky came into the game ranked 45th in offensive efficiency. True, the Cats were shooting 48.6 percent as a team, but they were also turning the ball over on 19.6 percent of their possessions. Not good.
That didn’t get any better Saturday. For the second straight game, the Cats failed to average a point a possession. Kentucky averaged a meager 0.894 at South Carolina in that 76-68 loss on Tuesday. They averaged just 0.905 against the Gators in Rupp.
For the second straight game, they committed 16 turnovers. At South Carolina, UK turned it over on 21 percent of their possessions. Versus Florida, the number rose to 22.6 percent. That’s the fifth game this year when UK has turned the ball over on at least 22 percent of its possessions.
Those factors lead to scoring droughts. Often long scoring droughts.
Up 28-20 against Florida with 5:08 left in the first half, the Cats made just one of 11 shots and scored just three points the rest of the half. Florida scored 13 and took a 33-31 lead into halftime.
Second half, after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a three-pointer for a 56-53 lead with 5:37 left, Calipari’s club scored just two points — a PJ Washington basket at 3:06 — over the next 5:05. During that time, Florida went on an 11-2 run for a 64-58 lead with 46.1 seconds remaining.
Similar scenarios happened at South Carolina, most notably in the second half after taking a 14-point lead over the Gamecocks. Up 57-43 with 11:30 left, the Cats went nearly three minutes without a point allowing the home team to slice into the lead.
Then when UK was up 65-58 with 6:12 remaining, the Cats went nearly four minutes without a point. South Carolina went on an 11-0 run for a 69-65 lead and you know what happened after that.
3. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier
First of all, yes it did appear that Florida fouled UK’s PJ Washington the next-to-last play of the game when he was all but mugged by Florida’s Keith Stone in the final seconds only to get a no call.
“Everybody saw it,” Calipari said.
So the officials swallowed their whistles much like they did at the end of UK’s 74-73 win over Texas A&M when Aggies Coach Billy Kennedy thought his player got mugged on the final play of the game.
Second of all, the night started with prep star Zion Williamson announcing that he would be attending Duke. Kentucky was considered a longshot in Williamson’s recruitment, but the news of another elite prospect headed to the Blue Devils was not the way UK fans wanted to start their Saturday night.
You have to move on. A struggling Mississippi State comes to Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, but after that there are plenty of tough, tough games for a Kentucky team that now has five losses, including three inside the league.
In next Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Kentucky travels to Morgantown to play West Virginia, aka Press Virginia, whose full-court pressing style could eat a high-turnover team full of freshmen, aka Kentucky, alive on WVU’s home floor.
After that, the Cats still have road games at Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida. Tennessee, which beat UK in Knoxville, comes to Rupp. So does an Alabama team that has looked impressive in back-to-back wins without star guard Collin Sexton, out with an injury.
Calipari pointed out that he now has a full roster. Quade Green was back Saturday after missing the last three games with a back strain. And Jarred Vanderbilt played in his second game, though the freshman scored just four points to go with his six rebounds in 13 minutes.
The prevailing opinion in this corner is that this Kentucky team is too limited to make much of a move come March, but there remains plenty of time to prove that notion wrong. The problem is each loss hurts not just the Cats’ confidence but its seeding come tournament time.
As Bill Parcells would say, you’re as good as your record. Kentucky is 14-5 overall and 4-3 in the SEC, two games behind Florida.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)
SEC men’s basketball standings