Well, folks, it is time. Kentucky lost on Saturday evening to the UNC Wilmington Seahawks at Rupp Arena. There is no sugarcoating this one as anything besides a bad loss. However, every bad loss still has context that deserves to be explained. The Seahawks are a well-coached, veteran team that came a couple possessions away from making the NCAA Tournament last season. Most of those same guys, plus a key transfer portal addition, are on the floor this year for a team that will compete to win the Coastal Athletic Conference once again.
Teams that compete to win their league are capable of beating any team in the country on a given night. Does that mean the Wildcats should have lost? No. Doing so at home is especially disappointing. However, Kentucky can learn from this loss and move forward with a long season ahead. It is a lot better to lose this game now than when the Seahawks are a 14-seed in the NCAA Tournament and it ends our season. Again though, that isn’t an excuse for the loss. Kentucky should not lose to UNC Wilmington at Rupp Arena.
Two things have to be able to be true at the same time. The bad loss happened, but the sky doesn’t have to be falling. We watched this team go toe-to-toe with Kansas on a neutral floor. Then, they dominated Miami. Those games say just as much about this team as the loss on Saturday.
As always, we have been hard at work in the KSR Film Room breaking down everything from Kentucky’s disappointing 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington. This time around, because there is so much to talk about, we are going to peel the curtain back a bit further and go a little more “live blog” style. These are the thoughts and observations, experienced in real time, while breaking down the film. Let’s dive on in and take a closer look at Saturday’s upset loss to the UNC Wilmington Seahawks.
Early First Half – UNC Wilmington Seahawks Build Their Lead
***On the very first play out of the gate Kentucky executes a called offensive play to perfection. Coach Calipari wanted to get Reed Sheppard, who was starting in place of DJ Wagner, loose for a 3 and he got a WIDE OPEN look on a great play design. However, he missed it. Even 61.1% 3-point shooters miss sometimes. That would go on to be the story of the game.
***In the first segment of the game (tip-off to under-16:00 timeout) there was one defensive breakdown that led to a UNC Wilmington Seahawks 3. Just WAY too much help on the drive. Kentucky had all 5 defenders in the paint staring at the ball as it was driven baseline.
It was Justin Edwards who got lost at the point of the screen. It happens. However, Kentucky needs to shift their mindset defensively a bit. You can’t get THAT enamored with the ball, especially off of shooters like #1 and #3 (#3 Harden-Hayes made this one). If you are guarding #3 you shouldn’t have ANY responsibility to help. If Edwards gets smoked and gives up a layup, let Coach Cal yell at him. Don’t compound the mistake by turning a 2 into a 3. You can watch the entire play in the clip below.
***The story of the first two segments (under-12:00 timeout) was lost possessions. Kentucky had three turnovers between the first and second media timeout and four in the game at this point already. That is a lot of lost points. Just using expected scoring per possession “math” and not looking at what ACTUALLY happened you can assume UNCW scored on one of those possessions off the turnover and Kentucky would have scored once or twice had they gotten a shot instead of a turnover. That can QUICKLY turn a 17-10 deficit into a 15-14 lead for example.
***Another defensive breakdown in the second segment and a bad offensive rebound allowed by Antonio Reeves that led to a bucket. However, it wasn’t TERRIBLE yet. You just can’t give UNCW those hidden possessions. These are mottos you hear a lot in “Watch the Tape” breakdowns “just keep scoring” and “if you score 80+ not much else matters.” Not turning it over and getting points on the board has this game 15-14 instead of down 17-10 and all the sudden you feel a LOT different.
***Third segment (under-12:00 to under-8:00) was a big missed opportunity. UNC Wilmington only scored 5 points in 5 minutes, but Kentucky turned it over four more times. One in transition kind of incapsulated the game. 20-17, ‘Cats gets a GREAT stop and rebound. Reed Sheppard had the ball in transition. So far this season that was nearly a guaranteed bucket. He had Antonio Reeves WIDE open ahead of him in the strong side corner. Instead, he threw a one-handed cross court bounce pass to Justin Edwards. It didn’t even make it half way to him before getting stolen. Just uncharacteristic.
Late Second Half – Kentucky Lucky to Stay in the Game
***Man, the stretch from 6:53 (under-8:00 media) to 3:37 (under-4:00 media) was TOUGH. UNCW went from up 5 to up 10 and Kentucky “only” turned it over once in that segment. Missed some GOOD looks and they made some TOUGH ones. A little “sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you” feeling in that segment. There was a stretch were Reeves missed a little runner in transition, the Seahawks made a TOUGH transition 3, and then Reeves missed an admittedly tough alley-oop layup in transition. ‘Cats had been MONEY in transition all season long, but just missed a couple opportunities in this game. Dillingham had his second 3 of the game just BARELY rim out too.
***Made it to halftime. Brutal start to that final segment as a career 6-23 three-point shooter made a DEEP transition 3 while Adou Thiero fouled him. Those are the shots that teams make when they pull up an upset. Kentucky had a handful of great looks not go in, but they made that one. That is how you get beat. It happens.
***Justin Edwards missed his third 3 of the game with Kentucky down 38-26. It was wide open. All 3 of his attempts were wide open to this point. He has earned the right to shoot them because he was making over one a game at 33%. However, once you miss the first two, in that position, maybe you can’t take the third one. Tough.
***HUGE 5-0 run by Reed Sheppard to make it a game at the end of the half.
***Here are the overarching halftime thoughts. Missed some good looks that had been going in so far this season, not converting in transition, #13 White dominated Edwards off the dribble (more of that to come), and Kentucky is BAD at switching (which is hard to be bad at…it is 100% an urgency issue).
***Expanding on that last point. UNC Wilmington was switching almost EVERYTHING in the 1st Half. Keeping a guy on a guy and staying between man and ball helped stagnate our offense some. Conversely, when the Wildcats would try to switch, they did so very lazily and it led to a couple of open 3’s for good shooters. Kentucky was losing the battle of switching in the 1st Half.
‘Cats Mount Quick Comeback to Begin 2nd Half
***The beginning of the 2nd Half was AWESOME. Kentucky was executing at a HIGH level in the half court. However, unlike early in the 1st Half, shots went in this time. Reeves curled some some Floppy Action for a nice floater. Reeves then scored twice off of Spain action. First a 3 off of the backscreen then he drove it left against a closeout. Reed Sheppard capped it all off with a deep 3 behind a handoff. Three of UNCW’s five points in the segment came from a crazy And-1 that their guy just threw in. Excellent segment. ‘Cats were up 48-46 with 15:27. Admittedly, at this point, it felt like they would go on to win by 15.
***Made it to the Under-12:00 timeout still with a three point lead. Antonio Reeves gave up two HUGE offensive rebounds. One went for an And-1 so that was a five point swing. The second one was admittedly tough. Really good play #13 White. He is a very good player. First one was just bad though. Still an uncharacteristic transition turnover during this stretch. UNC Wilmington career 14-54 3-point shooter made one as well. There was some bad luck to this game yesterday.
Seahawks Back on Top
***Kentucky went from up 55-52 at 11:20 to down 62-56 at 7:56. Scored one point in four and a half minutes. Same old story here. Not converting in transition. A couple of missed GOOD looks. A couple of turnovers. Not egregious honestly, but it gets you beat. Any of these segments are fine in a vacuum. They happen in almost every game. However, it was stringing so many of them together that doomed the ‘Cats.
***#13 White simply outplayed some people on Kentucky. He is a REALLY good player…but that isn’t a good sign for some folks in blue and white. Jimmies and Joes have to be Jimmies and Joes.
***Kentucky has been truly exceptional offensively this season. In essentially every single way. There is no need to sound a single alarm bell about the offense based on one game. The UNC Wilmington Seahawks executed an excellent game plan. No surprise there as they are a very well-coached, veteran team. Seeing this group go an extended stretch without scoring though was quite shocking. Not any one thing you could put your finger on there.
***A couple of BIG TIME Reed Sheppard buckets late cut it to two points each time. ‘Cats defense forced a shot clock violation and had another great possession, but #13 White from sideline out of bounds with 7 seconds on the clock beat Edwards again for a layup. Kentucky actually got some stops and gave yourself a chance in that stretch, but couldn’t get over the hump.
One Last Push Comes Up Short
***Man, there were some big “sliding door” moments late in this game. This stretch stood out a ton on film…
- Edwards got called for a foul on #13 White that might have been a clean block.
- #13 White missed both free throws anyway. Thiero was CLEARLY fouled on rebound. Should have been shooting 1-and-1, but there was no call.
- ‘Cats run Spain action, Reeves got a WIDE OPEN 3 at the top of the key and missed it.
- Great defensive possession by Kentucky. #13 White, a career 24.8% 3-point shooter, knocked in a contested step back 3 with under five seconds on the shot clock. Now 67-62 UNCW. Tip your hat.
***Reed Sheppard finished an And-1 with two minutes remaining to make it a 72-69 game, but the UNC Wilmington Seahawks would close it out from there. They made a couple of really tough shots late. Kentucky’s defense was lackluster to say the least on Saturday, but down the stretch they didn’t execute that poorly. The Seahawks simply made some tough shots.
What Does All This Mean?
Was Saturday’s performance extremely disappointing? Yes. Does it mark the end of what was a promising Kentucky season? No. The Wildcats are a young team that was missing their starting point guard while also introducing their five-star center to the rotation. Again, that isn’t an excuse but it adds context. The UNC Wilmington Skyhawks are a team that very well good win the CAA and play in the NCAA Tournament. #13 Trazarien White will be an All-CAA player that every team in the country would welcome into their primary rotation. A loss like this has a much bigger impact on the fanbase than it does with anything on the hardwood. This team will be fine.
Going forward though, there are some bigger picture concerns. The defensive problems aren’t going anywhere. The Wildcats have to be more disciplined on that end of the floor and take more pride in their concentration and execution of a game plan. Offensively, what do you go to when you aren’t lighting it up from deep and dominating in transition? Half court execution actually wasn’t that bad, but the offense did stagnate at times. Still need to establish those go-to actions and go to them MORE when the going gets tough.
Kentucky has a strong enough schedule that they can really water down the memory of that loss. Yes, it will be a black mark on the resume come Selection Sunday. It might even end up costing the ‘Cats a seed line. However, that is far enough in the future that it shouldn’t be today’s worry. If you beat North Carolina and Gonzaga and win the Southeastern Conference you are going to be a number one or number two seed in the tournament. There is no reason to think that can’t still happen. Learn from the loss, be better on Saturday at Pennsylvania, and move on with what is a long season ahead. Go ‘Cats.