Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: The Road To Perdition

22 points.  That's the difference between a 5-5 SEC record and a 10-0 SEC record for this version of the Kentucky Wildcats.  Kentucky has lost 5 SEC games by a total of 17 points.  The additional five added in there would be what it would have taken to win those games.  Throw in 3 more points, and this team could be 23-1 overall.

Never before have I seen a Kentucky team about whom you could argue that their main utility in the SEC was to raise the rankings of all the other teams.  Kentucky may wind up singularly responsible for putting two or three SEC teams in the tournament which, absent victories over the Wildcats, might well be in the NIT.  Only time will tell if that turns out to be true, but it looks that way right now.

It's hard, at least for me, to reconcile the team we see on the floor with the record we see on the schedule, particularly in the last three games.  Alabama and Georgia really defended Kentucky well, holding them to an effective field goal percentage under 50%.  But these last three are just hard to take.  In every one of them, Kentucky shot 52% eFG or better, and still lost.  They lost mostly because the other team outshot them, or outscored them from the line.  Against the Vanderbilt Commodores, it was both, the Florida Gators, the latter.  Against the Mississippi Rebels, it was turnovers and a cold-blooded 25-foot shot by Chris Warren.

Sometimes, the search for answers in the replay and on the stat sheet yields none.  Defense would seem to be the problem by looking at the stats.  But watching the game, Kentucky, for the most part, defended the Commodores very well.  Vanderbilt just made strongly challenged shots all day long, and when that happens, about the only thing a fan can do is throw up his hands in exasperation and walk away.  Sometimes, playing well just isn't good enough.  Sometimes, teams that play well enough to win 95 out of 100 times just don't.  Sometimes a coin flip comes up heads ten times in a row.

John Calipari has repeated the same mantra over and over again about these losses -- that the team just isn't experienced in these close, late-game situations.  With all due respect to our head coach, that's no longer true and hasn't been for some time now.  It was true back in November versus the North Carolina Tar Heels.  It was true against the Georgia Bulldogs, and arguably against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

But now, it is no longer true.  This team has more experience in close game situations than any Kentucky team since 2006-07.  The "experience" thing flies for a while, but not forever.  Yes, they are freshmen, but they are more like sophomores now, especially in close game scenarios.  A lot of games that look close really aren't, but every one of Kentucky's losses but one have been genuinely, achingly, maddeningly close.

Regardless, this team is on the road to perdition right now.  Losing all these close road games has gone beyond a peculiarity in an otherwise excellent season -- it has become a major shortcoming that has done irreparable damage to Kentucky's post-season chances.  A top three seed in the NCAA is now quite unlikely, and a seed below six is now becoming an annoyingly non-zero possibility.  It is now somewhat unlikely that Kentucky will get a bye in the SEC tournament absent a strong finishing run.

I don't want to imply that this team is playing perfectly when I say they mostly played well, they obviously aren't.  Notwithstanding the shooting statistics and the fact that they only turned the ball over 12.5% of the time against Vanderbilt (an extremely good number, by the way), the Wildcats picked the worst possible time to commit two of their turnovers -- late in the game -- which allowed two fast breaks that turned the Vanderbilt lead from two to six.  If even one of those possessions had resulted in a Kentucky basket instead of a turnover, we might be talking about a victory rather than a loss.

Timing is everything, and one thing about this team is that their timing really stinks.  In every one of their losses, there has been a badly timed series of events which took them from being in a position to win to a loss.  This is a team that simply does not execute well at the end of the game on the road.  In Rupp Arena, they have had no such difficulty, so it seems safe to say that something about being away from home really affects these guys in a way it didn't affect last year's.

At this point, I have to lower my expectations about the Wildcats this year.  I have stubbornly refused to adjust them so far because, like getting heads ten times in a row flipping a coin, it's hard to accept that these close losses are anything much different from plain bad luck combined with a few untimely errors.  But after enough "hard luck" games, you have to accept that there may be something deeper and more pernicious at work, even though it isn't totally obvious in their play. 

For whatever reason, teams find it easy to make tough shots against this version of the Wildcats, and easy to out-execute them in their home arena.  At this point in the season, every SEC team we play is fairly confident they can handle Kentucky at home, and their confidence is translating to losses for the Wildcats.  Not only that, it's hard to imagine that this team feels confident that any level of play will win a road game for the rest of this year.  There is no good reason, at this point, to believe the next coin flip will come up anything but heads until either the 'Cats change their luck or the road games mercifully run their course.  By that time, the wreckage of this season could be pretty gruesome.

With all that negative stuff said, I still like what this team does.  There are very few teams in the universe of college basketball, maybe even none, that I feel Kentucky could not beat on a given night on a neutral court.  That gives me some hope for the post season, if Kentucky can survive enough games to get there.  But at this point, the SEC regular season championship is out of the question, as is a top two seed in the NCAA tournament.  Everything else remains theoretically, if maybe not practically, possible.

I suppose we'll all just have to live with that.  But we don't have to like it.

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