It’s tough to pinpoint the biggest downfall of this Kentucky team because the list is extensive, a number of crucial ones limiting it from taking the next step as a legitimate contender. The Cats haven’t played a single game at full strength, but the defense is a deteriorating disaster while the overall response to physicality is downright embarrassing at times. That’s how we’ve gotten to seven losses with eight regular-season games to go, six being Quad 1 or 2 matchups with four true road games.
We can talk about time all we want with a full month left in the schedule, but if things don’t get fixed quickly, there may not even be a postseason run to continue kicking the can down the road toward.
Kentucky ranks No. 124 in defensive efficiency and No. 327 in scoring defense, taking punches to the mouth and collapsing with no fight back. The team’s home loss to Gonzaga was the most telling example, the Cats bullied in the post like a big brother beating up on his little brother on a seven-foot goal.
Only this time, it was real-life seven-footers getting cooked.
“They were more physical than us. Some of it was my fault, as a leader on this team I got to be able to go out and be physical and show that we’re going to fight,” Adou Thiero said following the loss. “Set the bar so that whoever comes into the game knows we’ve got to fight every single time. I didn’t do that so that’s how everything was just easy for them.”
The Cats gave up 50 points in the paint and 18 offensive rebounds with players 6-8 or taller combining for 66 combined points of 89 total points. Mark Few will tell you low-post dominance is “one of our strengths” and “you just have to play to your strengths,” but make no mistake about it, the Zags saw a mouse in the house on every paint touch.
That’s how they managed to score on 20-24 shot attempts around the basket, Kentucky putting together just four stops in the final 12 minutes of the loss.
“I know people have discussed a lot about their defense, but they climbed up against us in the second half and it was hard,” Few said. “We had to work really, really hard to get buckets in the second half. We executed good and made the right plays, but we had to work.”
It sounds good, but it’s also throwing the Cats a pity party, patting them on the head in a ‘good job, good effort’ kind of way.
You couldn’t stop us, but at least you tried!
Few was being kind, but Kentucky knows how it felt being toyed and tossed around by the Gonzaga frontcourt. They just didn’t bring what was necessary to beat a team like this — or any, for that matter.
That’s a problem and will continue to be one until this team looks itself in the mirror and realizes it’s put up or shut up time. The runway is growing shorter and shorter. If the Cats aren’t careful, this plane can and will crash.
“Effort and toughness. We’ve just got to rep the name on the jersey, Kentucky,” Thiero said. “The people who played here before us, they left it all on the floor. We’ve got to start doing that. Just because we’re young, we can’t think it’s going to be easy for us. Guys came in already with a target on their back. Just because of the jersey we’re wearing now, we’ve got an even bigger target on our back.
“We’ve got to go out every night and prove ourselves. It’s never going to be an easy night. Everybody is going to bring their A-game, so we need to toughen up.”
Do they’ve got it in them?
“Definitely, I think there is (a chance to turn things around), we just got to find it. We do it in practice every day, we just have to bring it to the game and transfer it to the game,” he added. “We just got to find a way to you know when the lights turn on be able to flip that switch again and be physical. … Offense wins games, defense wins championships. We’ve got to figure that out. Things will become a lot better for us.”
It comes down to heart both situationally and big-picture. You’ve got to have the individual fight to come up with specific stops and rebounds, but it also takes some pride to understand there are problems and address them head-on — and fast.
“Team pride. That’s really it. We’ve got to take pride in guarding our man,” Justin Edwards said. “… We’ve got to take pride in the little stuff. That’s something we say all the time to each other, we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball down low. What hurt us the most was guarding the ball and second-chance points.”
Fortunately for the Cats, a month is still a month. The clock is ticking, but the hourglass hasn’t technically run out of sand. And they’ll keep piecing things together hoping to find a fix until that time comes.
“We just need to stay together. Everybody stays together at the end of the day, we don’t have a problem with that,” Antonio Reeves added. “… A lot of stuff is going to be said in that locker room, just to correct it.
“We need that toughness and physicality, doing it in practice. That’s what we really need. We have it in us. Just keep practicing, keep focusing on those type of things. We’re going to get better at it.”