Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 85-74 loss at Texas A&M:
1. “I’m not cracking,” said John Calipari.
His team did, however. After a gritty first half in which UK took a 30-26 lead into the locker room — the Cats’ first halftime lead in five games; back to the Mississippi State game on Jan. 23 — UK’s wheels came off defensively to start the second half.
The Aggies scored on their first seven possessions, the last three being successive three-pointers from D.J. Hogg, Admon Gilder and TJ Starks. Calipari called timeout after the first four baskets. He called another one after the next three.
“Usually I like to go home with timeouts,” said the UK coach. “I didn’t have enough tonight. I could have called timeout every two minutes to try and stem the tide.”
Now with his first three-game losing streak at Kentucky, and on his 59th birthday, Calipari said he wasn’t panicking. He said he’s been through this before. He said he’s been through this a couple of times at Kentucky. He still thinks there’s time for his players “to get it.”
He admitted, however, that the clock is ticking and it gets harder with each passing week. Wednesday brings a road trip to conference-leader Auburn. And Calipari hasn’t experienced a four-game losing streak since 2005.
“They’ve got to want it,” Calipari said of his players. “I told them if I want this more than you want this, please tell me so I can start taking my wife to movies and dinner. But they want this.”
2. The energy UK showed the final five minutes, where is it the first 35?
Calipari said he’s not frustrated … but it has to be frustrating to watch his team fall behind by 23 points at 75-52 with 5:56 left and then play with enough energy and execution to cut the deficit to eight points at 79-71 with 54 seconds left.
Consider that Hamidou Diallo failed to score in the first half, then scored 13 points in the second. UK ended up shooting 54.5 percent the final 20 minutes.
“It’s not frustrating; what it becomes is, ‘Why is it happening?’” Calipari said. “Again, you’re so into how you’re playing, you can’t give that energy to the team. That’s what young guys do and I can’t seem to get them over that hump.”
When his players are concerned about their individual games, said Calipari, “they’re not very good. They look like they can’t play basketball.”
When the Cats get in desperation mode, however, all of a sudden they look like they can play basketball. That’s a bad habit to fall into, however. And it’s not winning basketball. Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said he thought his team got tired, and the Aggies did bend, but they didn’t break.
So now UK is 17-8 overall and 6-6 in the SEC. The Cats appear almost assured of a 10-loss season, sooner rather than later. That is unless they can find a way to play for 40 minutes like they played the final five on Saturday.
3. “Play for Kentucky, not for yourself.”
So yelled a Kentucky fan from the stands during a second-half timeout.
We’ve heard a lot of that sentiment this year and we’re likely to hear more. You know, “the players are more worried about the NBA” and “they don’t care about Kentucky” and “Calipari cares more about putting players in the NBA than winning titles.”
Here’s the Calipari scoreboard: One title, four Final Fours and six Elite Eights in eight years as the Kentucky coach.
Here’s the thing, however, with an impossibly young team in this sort of situation: You know things are going badly when you plug one leak and all of a sudden another one appears.
Bad offense has been the problem for Calipari’s club of late. The numbers bear out that this is the worst offensive team Cal has had at UK. And the Cats were hardly a juggernaut in the first half in Reed Arena, scoring 30 points. But they held the Aggies to 26.
Second half, the visitors gave up 59 points, the most by a Calipari team at Kentucky. You have to go all the way back to Jan. 5, 2008, for the last time a Kentucky team surrendered that many points in a second half. UK allowed 59 to Louisville that game in an 89-75 loss to Louisville.
Texas A&M shot 66.7 percent the second half, making 20 of 30 shots, including seven of nine from three-point range for 77.8 percent. The Aggies even banked in a couple. “It was our night,” Kennedy said.
I don’t think, as some fans fear, that the Cats are headed to the NIT. That said, I don’t think this just is Kentucky’s year. The Cats are too young. They don’t have enough experience. They aren’t quite talented enough. They don’t have that chemistry you need. The league is way too tough.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier. There’s the Wednesday trip to Auburn. Alabama, which routed Tennessee on Saturday, comes to Rupp on Saturday. Then comes a trip to dangerous Arkansas, a home game against a surging Missouri, a home game with Ole Miss, then a trip to Florida.
The last time UK finished with a losing record in the SEC? That was 1988-89 when the Cats finished 8-10. Historians will remember that was the year the school was being investigated by the NCAA.
What gives Calipari hope?
“I believe they are embarrassed by their play,” said the coach. “I believe that.”
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)
SEC basketball standings