Hot start quickly cooled downKentucky has consistently dragged through the first several minutes of every game since conference play began, forcing the Cats to scratch and claw their way back into games before the second quarter can even start. But against South Carolina, Kentucky got off to one of their hottest starts of the season. The Wildcats bolted to a quick 7-2 lead and eventually built that to 20-10 with under two minutes. The offense was moving the ball around the perimeter and finding open looks across the court. It was a pleasant surprise compared to previous games but proved to be short-lived. Kentucky would lead by three after the first period but was ran off the court in the next two and trailed by 11 entering the fourth quarter. After leading 20-10, the Gamecocks rattled off a ridiculous and demoralizing 40-15 run that buried any mental fortitude the Cats had created. So what happened? “I didn’t think we attacked consistently," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "When we did I think you saw we were able to make some plays, but for whatever reason we just could not get on the attack in the first half. And then, when you give up a 40-15 run, and they’re just scoring at will, it’s hard to get your break going."
The offense stalledIt's been a reoccurring theme over the last few games that needs to be kicked. Kentucky now has a habit of going through lengthy dry spells that destroy any rhythm they have. And most of the time, it's self-inflicted. South Carolina made an adjustment to force Kentucky inside after the first quarter but the Cats wanted to keep the game on the perimeter - where they admittedly play their best basketball. When quick actions and handoffs aren't generating any real movement, the possession will typically end with one of Rhyne Howard, Maci Morris, or Taylor Murray trying to make something out of nothing. Luckily, those are three brilliant players to have at your disposal for those type of situations, but not something that can be heavily relied upon. Especially every possession for an entire 40-minute game. Morris and Howard are two of the best perimeter scorers in the entire SEC. They can absolutely get to the rim if need be, but Kentucky's offense is built around them popping open for looks. And if those two can't get clean looks, there isn't anyone else that can bail them out. Which brings me to my next point...
Tatyana Wyatt needs the ball moreWyatt is the tallest and strongest player on Kentucky's roster. At 6-foot-2 she's about average size for most forwards, but as the tallest player, she often finds herself guarding centers and the results have been predictably against the Wildcats favor. It's not her fault that she's going up against elite centers almost every other game. But Wyatt isn't being utilized enough on the offensive end. Along with Ogechi Anyagaligbo, her and Wyatt are the two best frontcourt scorers for the Cats. Anyagaligbo has a quick trigger from 10-12 feet and is close to automatic if she can get a clean look - and she doesn't need much room to get it off. Wyatt is much more versatile. She can hit the three if she's open (7-21 on the season), has great footwork in the post, and can face up and take her defender off the dribble. Like Anyagaligbo, she also has a pretty pull-up jumper from close range that she should be encouraged to use more often. In an offense that features three elite-level ball handlers and scorers, it's no surprise that Wyatt isn't a major focus for defenses, but she easily could be. Wyatt does struggle to keep opposing bigs off the glass, but that's an overall team problem rather than an individual one.
Losing the battles in the paint and on the glassKentucky isn't a good rebounding team, I think that much is clear. The Cats 21.4 defensive rebounds per game rank in the 4th percentile among all 351 teams in the country, according to HerHoopStats. The Cats are much better on the offensive glass, thanks to the activity of players such as Howard and Murray - who attack the glass after a missed shot no matter what - but don't have anyone capable of competing down low with the size of some of these giant SEC frontlines. Against South Carolina, Kentucky was only outrebounded by one, but the larger issue speaks to their inability to keep teams out of their paint. Wyatt is strong and so is KeKe McKinney, but they just aren't tall enough to match up with the Teaira McCowan's (Mississippi State's center) of the world. Which is exactly why the Cats were outscored 44-28 in the paint against the Gamecocks. South Carolina prefers to work the ball inside and feed their best low post scorer, Alexis Jennings, who went for 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Cats. Kentucky, on the other hand, loves works the ball on the perimeter. The key difference is it's much easier to get a look close to the basket with a size advantage than it is to hunt for open looks beyond the arc. South Carolina shut down the outside looks and worked the ball inside every chance they got and it wore Kentucky down. As SEC play continues along, the Cats are going to continue to face frontcourts that can overpower them. Most of them won't be as quick, though, which is where Kentucky needs to try and incorporate more plays for Wyatt, McKinney, and Anyagaligbo. If they can create a more balanced inside-outside playstyle, they'll much less predictable to defend than they were on Thursday.
Energy, energy, energyHead coach Matthew Mitchell harped on it in the postgame press conference and it was an apparent issue throughout the final three-quarters of the game. Kentucky was constantly beat down the court after a made basket and could never establish their deadly full-court press. Most of the time, it was nothing more than just a complete lack of focus from a team that is normally hyperaware of what they need to do to enforce their brutal press. "If we lose that category we’re going to have a hard time in SEC play," Mitchell said. "So we’re going to have to see if we can bounce back and play with some more energy on Sunday.” South Carolina outscored the Cats 10-0 in fastbreak points and turned the ball over only 13 times. For reference, Kentucky's defense ranks fifth in the entire country in turnovers forced at over 22 per game. Every time Kentucky would score, Carolina was immediately right back down their throats in transition. The Cats looked overwhelmed and exhausted in the third quarter. They'll be back on Sunday as they take on the (5-16) Florida Gators in Rupp Arena on Sunday. It's going to be a must win, but as Jaida Roper put it after the game on Thursday, “I feel like every game is a must win.”
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan