Kentucky's recent three game losing slide has left many UK fans in a state of disbelief, with many voicing and typing away their frustrations over the apparent implosion of the 'Cats. On the ride home after the Mississippi State game, I myself ran the gamut of emotions from anger to befuddlement. "What is wrong with this team?" was the question I kept asking myself, "They don't look anything like the team of just a couple of weeks ago," I thought as I drove down the Bluegrass Parkway toward I-65.
No Levity in the Locker-Room
After finding no satisfactory answers, much less a solution, I arrived home to find out that a significant verbal altercation had occurred in the UK locker-room after the game, with the players being the ones doing all of the talking, or rather, yelling.
Generally these types of blow-ups are kept under-wraps ... kind of a 'what is said in the locker-room, stays in the locker-room,' sort of thing, but Patrick Patterson opened up and revealed some of the substance of what was discussed among the players.
He had this to say when asked about what was said in the "huge confrontation:"
"We were in the driver's seat. We just let it get to our heads, possibly going down to Ole Miss. We just underestimated them. The stretch we had going on got to our heads a little bit."
I sensed last week that player contentment may be an issue, and I even threw-out the possibility that UK might be resting on their laurels in this post. That possibility would certainly explain the lack of defensive execution over the last three games. You see, most players don't like to play defense, they have to be motivated to defend, usually by the bench. But since Billy Gillispie sometimes seems allergic to using his back-ups, pine-time isn't an option when searching for ways to motivate solid defensive play; it's up to the players to motivate themselves into regaining the defensive domination they possessed through the first five SEC games. And if a team is feeling fat and happy, playing Kentucky-type defense is not going to be a priority.
When pressed for other topics covered in the "meeting," Patterson continued:
"Passion. Just playing soft. Not playing like Kentucky. Not playing like we had been playing. People acting scared. No one cared about anyone's feelings."
"People said what they felt like they wanted to say. We exchanged words in a heart to heart. We said things that needed to be said."
"Passion" ... "soft" ... "people acting scared" ... we've heard those words used to describe UK's play by fans, media, and Billy Gillispie over the last couple of weeks. Now we hear #54 support what many have theorized. Well, maybe not support, but agree with.
When I first heard that there had been an airing of grievances in the post-game locker-room, I thought to myself, "This could be a good thing."
I thought that for many reasons:
- The players realize that what they are doing now, isn't working, i.e. they aren't making excuses anymore, or rationalizing the losses away. They are frustrated because they are losing. Some might think that all teams or athletes become frustrated at losing, but that's not always the case. It's good to know that this team cares enough about winning that they discussed their shortcomings in such an honest manner.
- Oftentimes events such as this can create an aura of starting over; a new beginning, if you will. And that's what UK needs right now. The regression in UK's play over the last three games is frightening, for it hasn't been a gradual fall-off, but a precipitous drop-off of Pikes Peak. Starting anew seems to be what is needed at this critical juncture.
- When I heard that Billy Gillispie was in the room and allowed the exchanges to take place I thought that was a "good thing" also. I figure Gillispie liked what he was hearing, and since the guys didn't come anywhere near getting physical with one another, he probably thought, "why not let them air it out?' Also, the fact that Gillispie let the players do their thing probably means the "meeting" was productive, and not destructive.
Clearing the air can most assuredly get everyone on the same page, so to speak, but putting those passionate pleas to work on the court is another thing entirely. For that, a team needs a leader (something that has been sorely lacking), and the first thing the newly anointed team leader needs to ask is ...
... Where's the D?
Kentucky's most obvious strength, especially since SEC play began, has been their team defense; Jodie Meeks was doing a fair impression of Keith Bogans; Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson were shutting down the lane, and intimidating with their blocks; Michael Porter was creating havoc with his defensive intensity; even Darius Miller was getting into the act by rebounding with abandon and playing much more aggressively.
But all of that came to an end at Ole Miss, and has yet to reappear:
Opponents shooting % for the last three games -- 43.0. Opponents shooting % for the first five SEC games -- 33.9 (36.4 over the first 20 games)
Opponents 3-point shooting % for the last three games -- 42.5. Opponents 3-point shooting % for the first five SEC games -- 29.4 (32.9 over the first 20 games)
Opponents scoring for the last three games -- 76.3 ppg. Opponents scoring for the previous five SEC games -- 58.4 ppg (63.5 over the first 20 games)
Why is UK's offense struggling? Because they aren't getting the defensive stops they were earlier in the year, ergo, they can't run as much as they would like. After-all, UK's half-court offense has been shaky for most of the year; in transition is where UK thrives offensively. But if a team doesn't play defense, it becomes much tougher to push the ball up the court.
In the first five SEC games of the year UK averaged 9.2 fast break points per game. Since then, they have averaged 3.3 fast break points per game.
Not running the break also enables defenses to focus more on Jodie Meeks (he's much easier to "latch on to" in the half-court). His numbers have suffered a dramatic decrease:
Over the first 20 games of the year Meeks was averaging 26.1 points per game. He was making 52.3% of his 2-point attempts, and 45.3% of his 3-point shots. Over the last three games Meeks' percentages look this way: He's making only 40.9% of his 2-point shots, and 31.6% of his 3-point shots, and he's averaging only 18.7 points per game.
Job number one for the 'Cats is to regain the defensive intensity that was present through most of the year. Without it, Kentucky becomes just another team waiting for a beating.
Although I'm not indicting Gillispie for incompetence, I do question a portion his game-planning; in particular his decision to have Meeks guard Downey in the second half of the South Carolina game (that decision has been well chronicled here at ASOB), as well as his overall offensive game-plan for the Mississippi State game:
- Time after time versus MSU, UK drove the lane only to have their shot summarily rejected, or altered by Jarvis Varnado. The 'Cats executed the exact same game-plan last year in Starkville, which was also a UK loss, 69-64. Last year MSU had 15 blocks, this year they had 13, with Varnado swatting seven. Some might point to UK's 32 points in the paint to explain that the 'Cats did a credible job in attacking MSU's interior, but, and it's a big but, UK had to take 36 shots in order to get those 32 points. Efficient? I don't think so.
- In the final 9:15 of the game, when UK was trying to play catch-up, Varnado blocked five UK shots. At one point I thought Varnado was using magic (against NCAA regulations, by the way) to draw the UK shooters into his lair in the lane. Why else would the 'Cats keep doing to same thing over and over, continuously getting the same negative result?
- Patrick Patterson committed six turnovers. Why? Because MSU had him triple-teamed BEFORE the interior pass was thrown to him. The Bulldogs didn't collapse on him after the catch, they were positioned around him before the catch, but UK insisted on passing the ball inside. Most often the result was a blocked shot, or Patterson having the ball stripped by a defender. Even more worrisome and frustrating is that Patterson often received those passes after Porter or Miller had passed up a wide-open three.
That was the game-plan? I have to believe that it was because it went on all night, and I never noticed any adjustments being made. All game there were many, many open looks passed up in order to drive to the basket, or dish to a covered Patterson or Stevenson down on the blocks. There was no attempt at ball reversal by the 'Cats, just attempts at putting a square peg into a round hole.
Questions and Consequences
All of this begs the questions:
Are some players scared to shoot? Maybe. If so, Gillispie has to fix it.
Are some players scared of making a mistake for fear of being benched? Maybe. If so, Gillispie has to fix it.
Are some players not playing as hard as they should? Maybe. If so, Gillispie has to fix it.
Does this team currently look anything like the UK team of only a few weeks ago? Definitely not. Gillispie has to fix it.
Gillispie has a lot of 'fixins' on his rather expensive dinner plate. Let's hope for the sake of his sanity, and the sanity of UK fans, that he's capable of pulling his troops out of the darkness of the abyss they currently occupy. There is still time ...
... and frankly, the alternative is too ugly to ponder.
Gillispie has stated over and over that he wants to coach at a place where the fans are passionate about winning. Well, be careful what you wish for coach, because that intense passion can be easily and quickly redirected to include an even more passionate passing of judgment on the job you are doing.
This is his ship. He is the one who gets the credit when the sailing is smooth, and he gets the blame when rough seas come calling -- Something he is very aware of, and paid handsomely for -- So it's up to him to find the solutions; it's up to him to motivate his team; it's up to him pull this team out of their funk; most importantly, it's up to him to deliver a team worthy of wearing "Kentucky" across their chests.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!