Today, I reviewed the replay of the Kentucky Wildcats at the Florida Gators trying to figure out what went wrong. I think the bottom line in this game is that Florida played very well offensively, and Kentucky played just okay defensively.
In the first half in particular, there were numerous defensive breakdowns by almost everybody, but it looked to me like Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones made most of them, although I did see a couple by DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson as well, so it's safe to say that the team played pretty poor defense in the first half.
We saw Kentucky play zone for a good part of the second stanza, and it was very effective, helping Kentucky climb back into the game after a spurt of poor offensive play allowed Florida to build a substantial lead. But as we all know, a zone defense has one glaring weakness which Florida was able to exploit -- lack of block-out responsibility. Chandler Parsons was able to get two big weak-side offensive rebounds that kept Kentucky from building up a two-possession lead when that zone was really hurting Florida's offense.
Once again, Kentucky found itself in a close game on the road, and once again, they failed to win. The big reason, in my opinion, was we went way too much to the two-man game of Knight and Jones. Jones was truly where possessions went to die in this game, as he took 18 shots, scoring on only 7. Several of the late-game attempts by Jones were very bad, forced shots he took when he had wide open wing shooters in the game.
More after the jump.
For all I know, that was Calipari's plan, but it didn't work well enough if so. The Kentucky defense in the second half was very good, and many of Florida's points came on tough, challenged shots that just went in, plus a very lucky sequence where UK dropped a rebound they had claimed off their leg that rolled out to Erving Walker in the corner, where nailed his only 3 of the game.
Here's what the Four Factors for this game look like:
You don't see teams shoot 53% eFG and lose very often. It does happen, but it's comparatively rare. This game was very close in score, and close statistically, as you can see.
What sticks out to me is the lousy OR%. Under 20% is just pathetic, and frankly, that's a pure effort statistic. Kentucky just did not work hard enough on the offensive glass, and that undoubtedly was a major contributor to this loss.
Don't get too caught up in the lopsided-looking turnover %, because both teams took very good care of the ball. Anytime you are under 20%, your ballhandling is fine. What is disappointing is that Kentucky was unable to force more turnovers out of the Gators than they did. Again, that speaks partly to defensive intensity and partly to foul trouble.
Once again, it seemed that Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins vanished in the second half, but there is a bigger issue, in my mind, that was largely responsible for that. Jones and Knight were playing a 2-man offensive game for about 60% of the half, and neither one of those guys was looking for anybody but the other. It was as if the other players were just supposed to hang out on the perimeter and create space for a constant pick and roll game between Knight and Jones. I don't know if that was Calipari's plan, or just ball-hogging, but I think, especially late in the game when we needed other guys to get involved, it hurt that they weren't.
It's my personal opinion that when you run all your offense through a couple of players, the rest of the team tends to lose focus. Most players feed off being involved in the offense, even if they aren't scoring. For long stretches of this game, Jones and Knight were the only guys to touch the ball on a given possession.
This wasn't the worst game Kentucky has played, but it was typical of their road efforts recently. The defense lacked intensity, the offense lacked diversity, and the game looked very hard. There were not very many cases of good ball movement leading to a wide-open look. Most of the shots came off on-ball action, and that just isn't what Kentucky looks like when they are playing their best.
What this loss means
While I think this loss is most likely fatal for Kentucky's SEC regular-season championship hopes, it isn't too damaging for their post-season hopes. The Wildcats still have five important games that they can use to press their seeding up, plus the SEC tournament. Those games come in the form of the return visit from the Gators, the games in Knoxville and Nashville versus the Tennessee Volunteers and Vanderbilt Commodores respectively, and the two return games in Rupp. Sweeping those would go a long way toward cementing a top four seed for Kentucky. Similarly, if Kentucky loses some of those games, that seeding could be jeopardized.
Kentucky now returns to Rupp Arena to play the Tennessee Volunteers in the return of Bruce Pearl. Kentucky very badly needs to win against the Vols, and that will be a very tall order, as Tennessee will be able to exploit Kentucky's lack of quality depth inside. Tennessee also has very good overall depth and will put a lot of pressure on Kentucky's guards. We'll just have to see how well the Wildcats handle it.
The Wildcats are in a relatively fragile position right now. They have lost two in a row for the first time in the John Calipari era. Although that in itself means little, it will mean a lot if UK does not bounce back at home, because they then have to travel to the toughest gym in the SEC and arguably in America, Memorial Gym in Nashville.
Personally, I have not lost confidence in this team. Every single loss this year save one has been a close one on the road. They have played very well at neutral sites, and at home. But at some point, Kentucky must find a way to win away from their home gym, in front of a hostile crowd. They cannot afford many more losses and have a real chance to make a run in the tournament.
What needs to happen
It seems to me that the Wildcats are facing a bit of an identity crisis. This team doesn't know who they are, and they are not the same team on the road that they are at home. On the road they play a much more careful game with fewer passes, more dribbling, and less defensive intensity. At home they move the ball, get out on the break, and are much more intense defensively.
Kentucky has now lost enough road games for their confidence to be shaken a bit. That can sometimes blossom into several unexpected losses and even derail the entire season. I don't expect that to happen, necessarily, but I have seen it happen before, particularly to young teams. Coach Cal and his staff must find a way to motivate this team to more defensive intensity, and share the ball more than they have been.
Perhaps it is time for Terrence Jones or Darius Miller to come off the bench, to mix up the starting lineup a bit to see if that allows players struggling defensively early in the game to get a feel for what's happening before going in. I must say that Eloy Vargas played very well against Florida, and so did Jon Hood, which is probably the most encouraging thing that came out of yesterday's difficult loss.
In summary, I expect we are all very disappointed in this result, but Florida played well and Kentucky just didn't play well enough defensively to earn the victory. Defense has been a strong point for this team up until the last couple of games, and this team looks a bit listless and joyless. which happens when you have a hurdle that you just can't seem to get over. Hopefully the short dose of home on Tuesday will inject new life into the 'Cats, and get them back on track for the season.