Midway through last week, it was easy to buy into the idea of this Kentucky basketball team running roughshod over most of its competition this season.
The Wildcats were way ahead of schedule, it seemed, a bounce here or there from beating No. 1 Kansas less than two weeks into the season and fresh off a dismantling of No. 8 Miami. There were points galore and more pace than UK fans had seen in years. With the way these Cats were clicking, surely things would only get better, right?
Obviously, this team still had things to work on. And those shortcomings were laid bare Saturday before a stunned Rupp Arena crowd that had bought in completely. Heavily favored Kentucky somehow lost a shocker to UNC Wilmington.
That was a bad day for the Cats. The good news for them is that there’s still time to work on what went wrong. Lots of it, in fact.
The 2023-24 UK basketball schedule has reached that point in the calendar where games are sparse and practice is plentiful. Over the next month, the Cats will play just four times: Penn in Philadelphia on Saturday, No. 9 North Carolina in Atlanta on Dec. 16, at Louisville on Dec. 21 and Illinois State back in Rupp on Dec. 29. And that’s it until the SEC opener at Florida on Jan. 6.
John Calipari had his Wildcats back in the gym Monday, and he sounded delighted with what happened there.
“It was old school,” Calipari crowed on his weekly radio show that night.
There were wall sits and lane slides for everyone, two days after the Cats had trouble staying in front of their guys on defense, especially late in the game. The rims in the Craft Center were rendered inoperable so shots couldn’t go in, but Calipari still wanted shots to go up. Two points for an offensive rebound, one point for a defensive rebound — the UK coach’s lesson to players he felt weren’t approaching the glass with enough gusto.
Calipari said guys were falling over, unable to feel their legs. That seemed to be the point.
And that was day one.
Kentucky goes into this stretch of four games before conference play with a 6-2 record and the No. 16 ranking in the latest AP Top 25 poll. Here’s what they can do to get better between now and January, straight from the mouths of Calipari and the players themselves.
Defense, defense, defense
If Calipari sounded hot about the Cats’ lack of defense immediately following Saturday’s loss, he hadn’t cooled off much 48 hours later.
“That can’t be who we are,” UK’s coach said Monday of his team’s tepid defense down the stretch.
“Straight-line drives” was the theme of the postgame presser, and the Seahawks were able to do it at will that day, blowing by the Cats on the perimeter time and again for easy buckets.
“You can scheme and do all the stuff and they go and do an and-one layup on a straight-line drive? It’s hard,” Calipari said Saturday night. “So we’ve got time in between games, and we’ve gotta keep working on the importance of staying in front of your man and make him score through your chest. We just keep opening up the hips, and they’re shooting layups.”
Calipari said the Cats did the same thing in an eventual overtime victory over Saint Joseph’s two weeks ago, but the difference is UK shot 52% and made 12 3-pointers against the Hawks. The Cats shot 41% and made five 3s against UNC Wilmington.
“There are games you’re not gonna make shots,” he said.
That also seemed to be the No. 1 topic on players’ minds after the loss. How can the Cats improve over the month of December? Veteran leader Tre Mitchell said it starts with defense.
“First is just going to be pride guarding the basketball. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “… You have to have pride in guarding the man that’s in front of you. And you have to take pride in not giving them easy looks. Now, we have backups. We have helpside defense. And that’s another thing that we just weren’t on it tonight.”
Defense has been an issue all season. The high-octane offense just masked it. UK started this week at 64th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to the KenPom ratings. That would be the third-worst mark in Calipari’s 15 seasons as head coach and just a shade off the No. 68 finish last season, a campaign marked by defensive inconsistencies.
Freshman guard Reed Sheppard repeated Calipari’s postgame talking points verbatim Saturday, and he said UNC Wilmington had thrown no surprises their way.
“We knew exactly what they were gonna do. That was just on us,” Sheppard said. “We gotta be better. We gotta be more disciplined. And we gotta be more locked in (with) just keeping the ball in front of us.”
Fellow freshman Rob Dillingham seemed to foreshadow the poor effort the day before, when he was asked what the Cats could do to get better in December. He led with discipline and defense.
“Because sometimes we get tired, and we don’t stick to the game plan,” he said.
And that’s what happened 24 hours later.
Everyone knew rebounding was going to be an issue following the departure of Oscar Tshiebwe and especially with all three of Kentucky’s 7-footers sidelined. And it has indeed been a struggle.
So far, Kentucky has been outrebounded by five of its eight opponents: Kansas, Saint Joseph’s, Marshall, Miami and UNC Wilmington. The Wildcats’ leading rebounder has been 6-foot-8 sophomore guard Adou Thiero with 7.0 boards per game. Starting center Tre Mitchell is next at 6.0 per game, and Antonio Reeves (who averaged 2.1 rebounds last season) follows at 4.8.
It would be easy to think that the Cats’ lower rebounding numbers might be due to their ability to make shots, but that’s not it. Kentucky is 290th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. Wake Forest, DePaul, Arizona State and Stanford are the only power conference teams with a worse number. With Tshiebwe manning the paint, the Cats were No. 1 nationally in that category last season and fourth in the country the year before that. None of Calipari’s previous 14 teams at UK have finished outside the top 100 in that stat. Seven of his teams have finished in the top 10 nationally.
“We have done just a crap job of blocking out,” Calipari said last week. “I mean, literally, when the ball is shot, every one of the players on our team follows the ball. And then the only rebound you can get is the one that went through the net, because eventually you’re under the goal.”
Calipari brought up the same point after Saturday’s loss.
“A guy shoots a ball, and we don’t block out,” he said. “We turn and run to the rim, and it bounces over the guy’s head. And-one. The very next play, the same thing. The guy blocks out like that instead of meeting him. … Those are all correctable.”
Calipari has specifically challenged Thiero and freshman Justin Edwards — another 6-8 guard — to crash the glass even harder when they’re on the court. The return of Aaron Bradshaw should help some, as will fellow 7-footers Zvonimir Ivisic and Ugonna Onyenso if/when they get back on the court. But none of those three projects as hugely impactful players on the glass. Their strengths lie elsewhere. This will continue to be a collective effort.
“Rebounding shouldn’t be designated to one person,” Thiero said. “That’s a whole team thing that we gotta work on. Everybody being able to crash the glass.”
Defense and rebounding have posed problems all season.
A new one popped up Saturday in Rupp.
“Well, we’ve got to make sure we don’t revert back to holding the ball,” Calipari said when asked after the UNCW loss what else these Wildcats needed to work on.
He said fellow coaches had been calling to tell him how much they loved watching his team.
“If they watched this game, they did not love watching this team,” he said.
UK had 14 assists — seven below its season average to that point — and the lack of ball movement led to poor decisions and few open looks from long range, where the Cats had previously been phenomenal.
Calipari was upset about it immediately after the loss. That didn’t change with a viewing of the game film.
“Why didn’t we pass the ball? We had 45 possessions of no passes or one pass,” Calipari said Monday night. “Now, you watched us play all year. What in the world? Why?”
The word “selfish” was used by multiple players Saturday night. To piggyback on Calipari’s question from two days later, how could that be with a team that had been the complete opposite going into the weekend?
“I don’t know if I really have an answer to that one,” said Mitchell, who is rarely at a loss for words. “It could be the aggression. Dudes wanted to make a play to get us back into the game.”
But that’s obviously not the approach that had the Cats clicking so well. Making the extra pass — not taking the tough shot — is what had Kentucky’s offense running so smoothly.
Playing without injured point guard D.J. Wagner surely hurt that connectivity to some extent, but Calipari made clear Monday he’s not letting his other players use that as an excuse, pointing out that Wagner was also sidelined for Kentucky’s offensive explosion against No. 8 Miami.
In that game, Calipari said UK showed what happens when you create for others. Four days later, the Cats showed the opposite.
“Sometimes you gotta stick your hand in the fire and get burned to know, ‘I don’t like this feeling.’ I was saying in huddles: ‘You having fun? I’m not having fun. Why won’t you pass it to each other?’ We had post-ups available, and a guy drove it and tried to shoot it and turned it over. Like, what? But that’s what happens with young teams.”
And that might be the crux of it.
For as talented as this roster is and as fun as this team can be, they’re still young. With Bradshaw entering the mix, the nine-player rotation will feature six freshmen and a sophomore who barely played last season.
The day before the loss, that sophomore, Thiero, pointed out that “being disciplined” is something these Cats were still working on. He said “becoming a vet team” should be a priority, but noted it would take time to get there with so many inexperienced college players.
That same day, Dillingham again foreshadowed what was coming next. The shifty guard who was electric but inconsistent in high school has emerged as a possible NBA lottery pick with his surprisingly measured approach as a freshman.
He said last Friday that playing basketball somewhere like Kentucky is what everyone on this team aspired to do. They were all “that guy” on their high school teams, but they seemed to learn quickly that playing for each other was the way forward.
But it’s still a work in progress.
“We’ve dreamed of playing on this level,” Dillingham said that day. “It’s the biggest stage, and Coach Cal’s not holding us back. He’s letting us play basketball. He trusts us, and we trust him. And as long as we trust each other, I feel like it’ll be a great season. … I feel like everything is going well, we just gotta trust each other even more and just mature a little bit more.”
The next day, they took a step back. But there’s a whole lot of time to plot the path forward.
“I would tell our fans — the true fans that want this thing to go well — just be patient with this group, knowing that they’re young,” Calipari said. “I am not the most patient guy, and I’m stepping on the gas a little bit. But just stay with ’em. And enjoy the whole process of this.”
No. 16 Kentucky vs. Penn
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 6-2, Penn 5-4
Series: Kentucky leads 5-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-62 on Jan. 3, 2011, in Lexington