The Kentucky Wildcats 75-73 road loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday, while certainly not the end of the big blue world, has surprisingly been treated as a Gardner-Webb/VMI-like loss by many of the UK faithful. Realizing the passion of Kentucky fans is one aspect of the program that makes it great, sometimes though, that passion blinds and skews ones thoughts on losses (as well as wins), and can have the unpleasant side effect of misdirected blame.
While pointing an accusatory finger at the officials (who, by the way, missed calls for both teams, with a few being egregious), John Calipari (why didn't he recruit another big man?), and the NCAA (it's their fault Enes Kanter received a salary) for the two-point defeat seemed a popular notion on the Internet and talk radio immediately following the hotly contested contest. From my seat, though, accountability for the loss falls most directly onto the (playable) roster of each team. More pointedly, to the size and talent of the men who make up the two rosters, as well as the breadth and depth of said roster.
The phrase "bad match-up" has been bandied about often in the world of college basketball, most often during NCAA tournament time. But, the dreaded "bad match-up" rose up and bit the 'Cats Saturday, even if it was only a nip. And it was a (bad) match-up the Big Blue Nation should have seen coming.
Follow me after the jump for my A to D reasons for UK's loss to the Heels.
A) Talented size matters:
North Carolina, which boast two generously talented big men in 7-0 Tyler Zeller and 6-10 John Henson, came into the game with a decided edge in the paint (this, UK fans knew, or at should have known), but the Grand Canyon-deep & wide disparity wasn't evident until after the game began. And then, within minutes, UK fans should have thought, "This is gonna be worse than I thought." Making matters even more unpalatable, the combination of a hyped Tar Heel squad, and a hyped Tar Heel crowd, widened the already considerable gap in paint talent to an alarming degree. The result, UNC scored 34 points in the paint to UK's woeful 14.
But the discrepancies, unfortunately, do not stop there: UK missed 38 shots in the game ... UK grabbed eight offensive rebounds, which is only 19.0% of their misses (that's putrid, folks). For comparisons sake -- The next lowest percentage of misses snagged by the 'Cats this year is 33.3% in the UConn loss. The 'Cats did do a credible job of rebounding Carolina's misses, though, limiting the Heels to only nine offensive rebounds on 34 missed shots. But, the ugly side of the coin tells us the 'Cats allowed the Heels to better capitalize on the few offensive rebounds they were able to grab, by outscoring UK 11-5 in second chance points.
The bottom line: UNC's Zeller and Henson combined to make 13-23 shots, score 40 points, grab 23 rebounds, and block eight shots (6-8 Harrison Barnes was magnificent in the first half, making 4-5 shots, 3-4 three-pointers, and scoring 12 points): UK's Terrence Jones, Josh Harrellson, and Eloy Vargas made 5-21 shots, scored 13 points, corralled 15 rebounds, and blocked one shot. A mismatch of thunderous proportions.
B) Terrence Jones played like the freshman he is:
Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones, the 'Cats best big man, simply had a bad game. It was apparent after Jones missed his first few shots (he eventually missed his first five tries) that he looked uncomfortable being guarded by the 6-10 Henson. Unable to get clean looks, Jones began pressing and was noticeably bothered by the bigger, nearly as quick Carolina forward.
The result, a 3-17 (0-3 trey tries) shooting performance, good for only nine points for the 20.7 points per game scorer. And on a day when rebounding was at a premium for the 'Cats, Jones grabbed only six in 28 minutes of play (he averages 10+ boards per game).
Does Jones deserved to be berated for his less-than-stellar outing? Of course not. He is, after all, a freshman, playing in his first true road game, in front of his first hostile crowd (unless one counts the UDub idiots in Maui), against a more experienced, bigger player in Henson. Jones will learn from his experience, and probably become a better player because of it.
C) The benches:
This one is easy -- UK played six players at least 10 minutes; UNC played eight players at least 10 minutes. UNC played one player more than 30 minutes, UK played four players more than 30 minutes.
This will be a concern for UK all season (against deep opponents), unless someone (Jon Hood?) earns meaningful playing time in practice.
D) The slowdown:
With 10 minutes remaining in the game, and UK clinging to a four point lead (60-56), the 'Cats began to milk the clock on each possession. Calipari did this to limit UNC's offensive possessions, because the 'Cats were quickly being handicapped with serious foul trouble -- At the time, Jones, Harrellson, Brandon Knight, Eloy Vargas, DeAndre Liggins all had three fouls.
Now, one can debate the effectiveness of such a ploy (I don't like it), but a strong argument can be made that without slowing down the pace, UK would have lost more players, sooner, to the bench due to disqualification (Jones, Harrellson, and Knight all eventually fouled out). But, the numbers tell us UK was ineffective offensively during the slowdown stretch, scoring only 7-points (and making zero shots from the floor) between 9:55 and :55 of the second half, after scoring 63 points the first 30:03 of the game.
The upside of the loss (if there is such a thing) is the fact that UK had all of the above aspects of the game working against them, and still only lost by two-points, on the road, against a quality opponent. And one of the primary reasons for UK staying in the lead, or close to the lead (for the entirety of the game), was the play of Doron Lamb. Lamb looked to be doing his best Tony Delk impersonation for most of the contest, making trifectas (3-4), driving to the hole, making free throws (7-8), and valuing the basketball (one turnover in 32 minutes). Without Lamb's 24 points, the game would have been over long before the final horn.
Another positive to come out of the game was the play of Josh Harrellson. In 21 minutes of play, Harrellson scored four points (2-2 from the floor), and grabbed seven rebounds (four big offensive boards). Not overly impressive numbers taken alone (save the offensive rebounding number), but Harrellson displayed an aggressiveness not often seen out of the Missouri native, perhaps because he knew Zeller and Henson provided UK with a very real challenge ... a challenge he was largely responsible for answering. Whatever the reason, if Harrellson continues to play with a (blue) chip on his shoulder, it can only mean good things for the 'Cats as they go forward.
Also deserving of kudos is DeAndre Liggins for his four assists and zero turnovers, as well as a season-high six rebounds. Darius Miller also crashed the boards, nabbing seven rebounds, his most since UK's season opener.
Lastly, and thankfully, the 'Cats do not have to fret over facing a team loaded with such talented size again this year ... until tourney time, and hopefully by then, UK will have figured out a way to stop the opponents talented bigs from having career games. Perhaps a call should be placed to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, for a 2-3 zone may hold the answer.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!