Kentucky Wildcats 77, North Carolina Tar Heels 82:  Postmortem

Grant Halverson

Kentucky finds disappointment on Tobacco Road as the Wildcats drop their third game to a top 25 opponent in Chapel Hill.

Well, here I am again, writing a postmortem about a loss. For a team that many fans had pegged to go a ridiculous 40-0, we sure have lost a lot of games. This was yet another game that Kentucky could easily have won, but simply did not.

Congratulations to the North Carolina Tar Heels on the big win. They were just enough better than Kentucky to claim this victory, their third over a top 25 team this season. They won by executing better, playing smarter, and making the most of the advantages they got. In other words, they deserved to win, and Kentucky deserved to lose.

It would be really easy for me to tee off on the Wildcats in this game, but honestly, I see so much improvement and so much regression all at the same time. Clearly, it's youth, but it's also very frustrating to us Kentucky fans. Already, I have seen some commenters lamenting Calipari's recruiting strategy even after two final fours and one NCAA Tournament championship. To them, I say, "Get over it. This is how it is." This season, it has led to 0-3 against the best teams, but let's be honest, losing to a good North Carolina team on the road in their first true road test is not a mortal sin by any means.

Team observations:

  • Kentucky wound up shooting 37% from 2, 33% from 3, and 67% from the line. Like it or not, the free throw shooting was not that bad, in fact, right on season average. The shooting from the field was what was so horrible.

  • The foul trouble in the first half really hurt Kentucky, as did the technical foul on Calipari. It would be easy to blame that on the officiating, and maybe right, but I'm just going to leave it at that.

  • 30 personal fouls on Kentucky. Enough said.

  • 17 turnovers in what I am guessing is about a 74 possession game. 23%. No good.

  • Kentucky won the rebounding battle convincingly. However, they lost the turnover battle huge, 12-23%. That, and the much better shooting by North Carolina (48%) did Kentucky in.

  • The Wildcats did a good job on Marcus Paige in the first half, but let him lose in the second.

  • Kentucky's transition defense was decent in the first half, but UNC really hurt us in the second.

Player observations

  • Aaron Harrison was great, overall. He defended reasonably well and offended very well, making 8/14 FG attempts for 20 points, 2 rebounds and only 1 turnover. He did a lot of good things out there, but he still just isn't tough enough. Still, he gets the game ball.

  • Andrew Harrison also had a good game, although he shot free throws uncharacteristically poorly. He shot a poor percentage, but got fouled a lot and kept a lot of pressure on the Tar Heels. Unfortunately, his 7 assists were offset by 4 turnovers. Andrew also had 7 rebounds.

  • James Young also played reasonably well, but shot a horrible percentage. He got 17 points on 3/10 shooting, shot 8/10 for the line, 7 rebounds 1 assist and 1 turnover. I thought Young played really hard on offense, and defended reasonably well, but again, he needs to stop the dumb fouls.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein had his usual solid line, and it's really hard to find anything he didn't do fairly well, except for handle the basketball. He was 2/4 shooting for 5 points, snared 12 rebounds, got an assist, 4 blocks and 4 turnovers.

  • Alex Poythress scored 6 points on 2/4 shooting, 8 big rebounds and 1 turnover. This was one of Poythress' better games, and even though he fouled out, he made a lot of tough-minded plays. His defense was not that great, but he deserves credit for his hard play.

  • Julius Randle was, in a word, lackadaisical. I have no idea what was going through his head, but he was not aggressive, at least not in a smart way, took bad shots, played matador defense, and just generally gave me heartburn. He did some good things, like make his free throws, but with a mere 5 rebounds (he probably surrendered more than that with lack of effort) and 4 turnovers, this was easily his worst game of the year.

  • Dakari Johnson played hard, but just needs a lot more development. He wound up with 2 points on 1/4 shooting, 3 rebounds and 1 turnover.

  • Dominique Hawkins had to play a lot, and his lack of an offensive game really made him stick out as a net negative, even if he defended typically hard. He missed both free throw attempts at a very important juncture in the first half, and managed no assists, 1 turnover and a steal.

  • Jarrod Polson was pressed into duty due to the massive first-half foul-fest. He did not impact he box score other than a foul.

I know a lot of you are frustrated by this loss, especially due to some questionable calls in the first half. Don't let it drive you crazy, we are seeing a team evolve, and we are going to see losses like this for quite some time until these guys get it all together. I fear that Kentucky is going to have to make their run in the NCAA tournament from a relatively high seed, and while that isn't what we'd all like to see, we can expect a much better team by the end of the season if they don't get used to losing.

I think it's fair to wonder if this team really hates losing enough. I'm going to guess that they don't, and it's probably fair to wonder who, if anyone, is ever going to emerge as a leader on this squad. The team is taking too many plays off, lacks cohesiveness, and simply doesn't seem to be up to handling the big moment. Kentucky had many chances to take control of this game, and in every case, they not only failed to do so, but often seemed not to care enough about it to break through their comfort zone.

That, in a word, is the biggest problem with this team — an unwillingness, or inability, to push through their comfort zone, to fight through fatigue and make the right play at the right time. They seem to lack a sense of bigness, and are playing small, allowing less talented teams to dictate to them. UNC is not significantly less talented than Kentucky, but the Wildcats clearly have no feel for the size of the moment, and seem to shrink in stature when the game gets serious.

If that continues, this season will be a disappointment, but clearly, this isn't totally lost on them, or on John Calipari. Kentucky did some good things in this game, but what we are seeing is guys take a lot of possessions off when one or the other person is getting going. That's not how you win games like this, or get to Final Fours.

We did see a lot of this back in 2010-11 early in the season when UK had no feel for the moment. A lot of that was a problem with Brandon Knight, but it eventually got solved and the Wildcats became a very good team late. I think that's what we are going to have to hope for this season, something like 2011, whent the team finds its game late. Andrew Harrison showed some hopeful signs, as did his brother. Now, if the guys can only get on the same page at the same time, good things are bound to happen.

Don't get down, Big Blue Nation. This was always going to be a tough place to win. We have to get better, and get ready for Belmont, then the Dirty Birds. Redemption is still possible, but it seems the route is going to be a bit more challenging than we'd hoped. That's life as a Kentucky fan, so don't stop having fun, even if tonight is bitter medicine.

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