Before we get started, I have to congratulate former Kentucky basketball star Travis Ford on his team's huge home win Saturday. As most know, Ford's Oklahoma State Cowboys pummeled like they meant it, the No. 1 ranked Kansas Jayhawks. James "He's Really Good" Anderson and former UK player Matt Pilgrim combined for 45 points, as the 'Boys took it straight to the 'hawks ... and actually, it was a game which played-out very similarly to UK's loss in Knoxville.
At the end of the day, though, Ford gave me reason to smile.
While Okie State's reality was a big win over the top ranked team in the country, the Big Blue reality is -- When a team executes as poorly as UK did Saturday, and misses as many shots as they did Saturday, and fails to make adjustments as they did Saturday, then Saturday's outcome, a nine-point loss, will possibly portend what's to come.
For the second time this year, UT's Bruce Pearl summoned the ghost of Ray Mears, and put together a game-plan fit for a king. In the first meeting of the two teams, Pearl pulled out the 3-2 zone defense which had been sitting in the back of his closet, gathering dust. The ploy nearly worked, in Lexington no less, as his out-manned visiting Vols fought valiantly and smartly, succumbing to the 'Cats not until the final nine minutes or so. Saturday though, Pearl brought with him two golden nuggets of strategy, both of which befuddled, bemused, and in the end, sent the 'Cats back to Lex with bruised egos and motivation to get better.
This time around, Pearl chose to switch defenses, alternating between a straight-up 2-3, a 2-3 match-up, a straight 3-2, and man-to-man. But, the most important (and game changing) component of Pearl's defensive philosophy was to "front" UK's big men, and anyone else who ventured onto the blocks for that matter. This he did, regardless of which type of defense the Vols were executing.
UK's response to the ploy was to shoot threes, which invariably were wide open, sometimes forced, and seldom true. Instead of spreading the floor, which creates space, and throwing over top of the "coverage," UK continued to launch misguided rockets, which not surprisingly led to defeat. I know, I know, it's called shooting them out of the zone, but after missing 10 of 11 three-point shots per half, some type of adjustment is in order, but none was forthcoming.
Offensively, Pearl thought his players could take UK off the dribble, and unfortunately, it turns out the sweaty-one had a righteous feeling. On Saturday, Kentucky gave up more points in the paint (an unfathomable 42) than it has against any team all year. Whether it be Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, J. P. Prince, or Melvin Goins, Pearl instructed his team to drive, drive, drive. They did, and UK couldn't stop them for nearly the entire first half, which is where the game was lost. Editor's Note: I find it more than somewhat ironic the dribble-drive is what doomed the 'Cats Saturday.
Now, do I think the 'Cats played with poor effort and hustle? No. I thought the 'Cats played hard, but they didn't play smart basketball. They did exactly what Pearl wanted them to do; take and miss the three.
But, given all that went wrong on Saturday, which was pretty much everything except UK's free throw shooting (21-21, 77.8%), John Wall, who played unimpressively for the first 25 minutes of the game, showed why NBA teams are salivating over him and his freakish ability. His almost single-handed resuscitation of the near dead 'Cats was truly a sight to see, but the poor kid didn't have enough in the tank to finish the race. He emptied his reserve playing catch-up: In Kentucky's 30-11 run from the 14:05 mark of the second half to 2:10 remaining, John Wall scored nine points and dished out four of his six assists. Due to Wall's fast and furious pushing of the pace, UK scored 15 fast break points in the 12 minute span, and displayed to the college basketball world why no team wants to run with the 'Cats.
But aah, there's the rub -- No team wants to run with the 'Cats, and now, with an abundance of tape available to Wildcat opponents, a blueprint of sorts is now clearly evident to any coach willing to adopt a slow-down pace, and a "front" the Big Blue big men defensive stance. Two tactics which serve to supplement the zone defense, which all of the world now knows is the only (or best) way to best the 'Cats -- And the rub, unless confronted by Kentucky with tickling twine, as well as points in the paint, will probably doom this team to an unpleasant ending.
Yet another unsatisfying aspect of Saturday's game were the final two minutes. In games past, Kentucky's young guns have stepped-up, and closed out contests successfully, fueled by their now-famous refuse to lose game-ending tact, which is a euphemism for, they make shots and take care of the basketball. But not Saturday; In the final 2:10, the 'Cats scored zero points and turned the ball over three times. Cue Rocky Top, and get outta town.
The Three-Point Problem
As many scribes have written about over the last few days, UK's lack of a three-point threat, a pre-season area of concern, has reared its unwelcome head at the most inopportune time -- Over the last seven games, UK has combined to make only 20.3% of their three-point shots (24-118), and it's not just one or two 'Cats misfiring, it's the entire blue crew, save Patrick Patterson: Individually, the numbers break down thusly -- Darnell Dodson: 2-21 (9.5%); John Wall: 3-23 (13.0%); Eric Bledsoe: 5-25 (20.0%); DeAndre Liggins: 4-17 (23.5%); Darius Miller: 4-16 (25.0%); Patrick Patterson: 6-16 (36.5%) -- In UK's previous 22 games, the 'Cats made the long-range shot at a 39.1% rate (150-384), but that acceptable rate of made threes is at least a bit misleading.
Early in the season, UK got fat and happy dropping three bombs on, not hapless competition, but competition less talented than the teams Kentucky faces in the SEC, as well as the teams UK will confront in the NCAA Tournament -- Miami, OH (6-11 threes), Sam Houston State (11-22), Cleveland State (5-11), UNC-Asheville (8-18), Indiana (7-14), Austin Peay (8-12), Drexel (9-13), and Hartford (14-28) -- The 'Cats made the trey at a 52.7% rate in the eight games listed, in the other 21 games the 'Cats have played they've shot 28.4% from beyond the arc. Simply put, those eight games represent the contests in which UK built their unwarranted reputation of being solid, if not spectacular, three-point shooters. And in at least one instance, the home game against Vanderbilt where UK made 12 of 23 three-pointers, success is slightly spoiled (is that possible?) by the fact that the Commodores are ninth in the SEC in defending the three, giving up the long-bomb at a 34.4% rate.
Nearly as troubling is the fact that four of UK's five primary three-point threats are neophytes at being competent at making the shot -- Darius Miller began shooting the three as a senior in high school, making around 30%. Last year, Miller made 18 of 55 threes (32.7%); DeAndre Liggins wasn't known as a long-range shooter in high school, and last season Liggins made only 12 of 51 three-point shots (23.5%); Patrick Patterson, who is the only 'Cat to make an acceptable percentage of this three-point shots over the last seven games, only took up the shot in the off-season, in an effort to improve his NBA Draft stock; Neither John Wall nor Eric Bledsoe were proficient at the three-pointer in high school, in fact, their lack of a consistently accurate long-range shot was the major knock on both players coming out of high school.
My point? These players do not have a plethora of positive experience to draw from when they begin to struggle against good competition. Which is exactly what has happened. To use a baseball analogy, they aren't lifetime .300 hitters trying out break out of a slump, they are struggling rookies. Which is the worst kind of rookie to be.
Will a dose of confidence shake them out of their three-point doldrums? Will UK find a way to dominate the paint without relying on the three-pointer to loosen the sagging zone? This I don't know. But, I do know what a championship team looks like, and at this point, the 'Cats don't have the chops. Of course, that can change. But the metamorphosis must occur soon, for with each passing three-point miss, the season that counts draws nearer.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!