Kentucky is putting all of its eggs in the March Madness basket -- and that's a dangerous position

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim02/10/24

Kentucky has made history in the worst way imaginable, losing in three consecutive games inside Rupp Arena for the first time — ever. It was an 89-85 defeat, this time to Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Another day, another shootout coming up short in the Wildcats’ favor and fans scratching their heads wondering what happened to the team they fell in love with early in the season.

How did we get here? Like most days, it starts with the defense.

Frontcourt crushed in Tre Mitchell’s absence

It was a revolving door of 7-footers, Calipari shuffling his deck over and over hoping for someone to step up and slow down the Gonzaga frontcourt. Graham Ike (23), Anton Watson (17), Ben Gregg (14) and Braden Huff (12) are the Bulldogs’ lone rotation pieces in the frontcourt, all standing 6-8 or taller. 66 combined points of 89 total, each guy picking and choosing which Kentucky big to shove in a locker. When it wasn’t straight-up bully ball, the Zags torched that trio in the pick-and-roll resulting in wide-open gimmes at the rim.

50 points in the paint and 18 total offensive rebounds. That’s where the game was lost.

“We thought we could guard them one-on-one,” John Calipari said. “We probably needed to trap more. But then you are freeing up some other guys.”

It all comes with Tre Mitchell off the floor, missing his second consecutive game with a back injury. And while any one player wouldn’t save the day in a total frontcourt meltdown, you have to wonder what difference he would have made as another option to match physicality, at minimum.

“We spent a lot of time worrying about Tre Mitchell,” Mark Few said after the game. “He’s a tough matchup with his pick-and-pop and what he can do if he gets a small guy on a mismatch. So, we caught a huge break there, with him not playing.”

A poetic finish on both ends

Kentucky had its chance, down two with 13 seconds to go. Justin Edwards forced a turnover, allowing Calipari to draw up a play to tie or win, rolling with a lob from Reed Sheppard to Adou Thiero for a potential slam with five seconds to go. Instead, the pass was ripped down by Ben Gregg, leading to free throws the other direction.

The Gonzaga forward went 1-2 at the line, putting the ball back in Kentucky’s hands with five seconds to go, Zags up three.

You know where we’re going with this.

Mark Few decides to foul — something Coach Cal opted against in the home loss to Florida on Jan. 31 — and it led to a make, followed by a miss-on-purpose look the Cats couldn’t haul in. Foul game, two makes on the other end, game over.

“The plan was Antonio (Reeves) if the lob wasn’t there, and it obviously wasn’t,” Calipari said. “It was to go to the top of the key.”

No matter what was drawn up or how it was ultimately executed, it doesn’t look like Tyler Ulis was a huge fan as things were unfolding on the bench.

The frame-by-frame breakdown is pretty brutal. Sheppard has his mind made up before Reeves even has a chance to pop out while Gregg is left alone to contest, Onyenso and Edwards the ball-watching culprits. And the pass itself was short-armed to the one guy on the roster who can go up to the Rupp Arena rafters to snag it for the flush — how do you miss him low? Maybe more importantly, when has this team shown consistency on lob attempts to the point of drawing up an alley-oop on a do-or-die offensive possession to end the game?

Where was Rob Dillingham?

Look, Kentucky managed to cut a 12-point deficit into a six-point lead with Dillingham off the floor — an 18-point swing. Calipari was riding the wave of momentum and it was the right call.

By the time he checked in for the first time with 11:46 to go, though, the lead was already back down to one and the Cats only earned four total stops the rest of the way. The defense wasn’t good with or without him on the floor. That’s why it’s tough seeing the guy who had averaged 25.0 points per game and scored 35 his last time at Rupp playing four total minutes in the second half.

“The team that was out there was playing so well together that I left it alone,” Calipari said after the loss. “And I told him and DJ (Wagner), that’s the only reason I left it alone. And if we finish the game – you would have said, but – now you look at it and say why didn’t you have him in? You’re right. We could have. But that group was playing so well that I didn’t go to the rotation.”

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Adou Thiero had been playing well and Justin Edwards finally got rolling after a no-show in the first. Nobody was playing defense, but are you taking the best of the worst off the floor? Go guard-heavy and play small, maybe trading threes for twos and hope to win a legitimate track meet?

Woulda, coulda, shoulda, unfortunately. That’s just how it goes when you lose your third straight game inside Rupp Arena for the first time in the building’s history. Fans want answers.

Where do we go from here?

It’s time for a reality check, at minimum. Sitting at 16-7 on the year with losses in four of the last six games, Kentucky is very much trending in the wrong direction with eight regular season games to go. This loss doesn’t do anything for the conference standings, but it does for other teams licking their chops waiting to take on the Cats. They’ve been exposed every which way defensively, the flaws put on full display night after night, opponents sleepwalking to 90 points knowing Kentucky doesn’t have the fight to punch back and come up with stops.

Besides steamrolling a horrendous Vanderbilt team, this team has been regressing for weeks and stacking losses in the process. UNC Wilmington was a major black eye, but the only one leading into conference play. You could chalk that one up to rotation issues, missing DJ Wagner, whatever. Even Texas A&M wasn’t super eye-opening at the time because they still scored 92 in a true road environment against a desperate team needing a statement win. The built-in excuses were there.

Now any early-season trust earned with this group is gone. You’ve got seven losses with four more Quad 1 games to go, three being true road games. What has Kentucky shown to make you believe it is capable of going even close to perfect in that stretch? Even Ole Miss — the Cats’ next opponent — is 18-5 on the year and also desperate, coming off back-to-back losses. Are you telling me they can’t come into Rupp and give this team a fourth straight home loss, even as a Quad 2 opponent?

This team is the most gifted offensive team of the Calipari era and maybe even the history of Kentucky basketball. And as crazy as it seems — insane, even — they’re staring down the barrel of missing the tournament entirely if things don’t change in a hurry. Rutgers finished the 2022-23 season ranked No. 40 in the NET and missed the cut. Same with Oklahoma State (No. 42), North Carolina (No. 44) and Clemson (23-11, 8-6 in Quad 1 and 2) as the first four out.

Calipari isn’t afraid of playing for March, but it’s tough to put all of your eggs in that basket when things could still go sideways. It’s more likely they get things sorted out before it’s too late with so much firepower, but the schedule doesn’t make this shaky and historically poor defensive group immune to a disaster finish.

They’re officially in the territory now where it’s at least a conversation.

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2024-02-22