This is one of those rare times when it's necessary to start off an article with a series of disclaimers. First of all, Kentucky's season did not just collapse with this loss. It is still very possible for Kentucky to garner a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and I am not going to argue that is impossible. Rather, we are going to discuss what this means in terms of probability as I see it right now.
Secondly, I will not attempt to argue that this team is bad, or that the Wildcats are particularly overrated. I will not attempt to argue this loss means more than it did, but rather, avoid the trap we all often walk into of minimizing the importance of it, putting on our blue-tinted glasses, and seeing nothing but visions of confetti falling down on dancing players at season's end as the Wildcats and their considerable upside merges fortuitously in Dallas.
Finally, this is intended to be a realistic take at what the game means in the context of the season overall, not in isolation. In isolation this was just a semi-away loss, the kind of loss good teams suffer every year, even NCAA Tournament champions. In the larger context, I will argue that it is more important than that, and why.
Finally, no, I don't think there is any chance UK will miss the NCAA tournament. Okay, I think I'm mostly fully disclaimed, so lets get started.
I postulate that this season's loss to Baylor creates significant schedule pressure on Kentucky based on what we know right now. What I mean by that is that it is the stated goal of John Calipari not to win SEC championships as ends in themselves, but rather to position Kentucky to get a #1 seed. This loss significantly jeopardized that probability, and forces Kentucky to adjust their thinking.
It is axiomatic that schedule strength is an important determinant in being selected as a #1 seed by the selection committee come March. It is actually better, in the eyes of the committee, to lose to a strong team than to beat a bunch of 250+ ranked teams on the way to an unblemished non-conference season.
But the top four seeds are a special case. They don't necessarily require an unblemished conference record, but they do require multiple quality wins. This is where Kentucky gets into trouble with this loss.
So far Kentucky has lost to both "quality win" teams it has played. Yes, I do realize that both were fairly narrow losses, but they were both technically upsets. As such, they were games where Kentucky should have reasonably been expected to win (I know some of you will quibble about Michigan St., but bear with me) but did not.
Here are the fundamental arguments I am making:
The selection committee is already biased against young teams (I believe this is why 2010-11 Kentucky got a #4 seed instead of a 2 or 3).
Baylor, while a definite NCAA Tournament team and a very good squad, doesn't look to me to be good enough to get to the Final Four. They are not much more experienced than Kentucky, and rather less talented in sum.
The combination of losses to MSU and Baylor leave Kentucky halfway through the non-conference schedule without a single quality win, defined in this case as a top 25 team at the time. No doubt there are other definitions of quality wins, but when you are talking #1 seeds, those are the ones that matter.
There is currently only one top 25 team in the SEC other than Kentucky, and that is Florida. Florida is injured, and also I don't think they are going to stay in the top 25. That means in conference, UK will have to beat Florida all both times to pick up two quality wins, and that assumes that Florida is actually good enough to stay there, which I doubt.
Kentucky has exactly two more "quality" teams on its schedule, other than the aforementioned Florida.
Taking all this together, and where UK is likely to fall in the polls, the Wildcats are going to need a lot of help to get into position to claim a #1 seed. Teams like North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, and Syracuse all have schedules where there are multiple opportunities to claim quality wins. Kentucky doesn't. This isn't the fault of Calipari, I think the non-conference schedule is plenty tough enough, but only if you win most of the quality games on there. The weak teams fielded by the SEC are more to blame than anything else, but this seems to be a trend unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.
So where this all puts UK is essentially in a "must win" position at UNC and versus Louisville. Win those two games, and they have a chance at getting a top seed with a reasonable bit of help from the field. Lose them, and they will be in the same dark place they were last season coming out of the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Why I am so upset about this loss.
Now that I've covered the NCAA Tournament implications as they look to me right now (and we always will examine facts in this context), this was the kind of loss that the Gold Standard team in recent history, 2011-12, would never have allowed. Now, I realize that you can't pick and choose realities, and this is a different team. But one thing about championship squads never changes — they learn not to settle, and do what is necessary to win.
Whether or not this is a matter of poor coaching or poor execution is difficult to discern. We know, for instance, that Kentucky had trouble defending the pick and roll, but that also requires context — the reason teams run the pick and roll is that it is hard to defend, and requires a lot of practice. It is possible that Kentucky simply has not had enough time practicing pick and roll defense because of other priorities. It's also possible they've been taught repeatedly proper P&R defense and simply haven't been able to master it. A lack of information, in this case, leads to imprecision, so the "blame," such as it is, cannot be accurately assessed.
None of that bothers me all that much — technical defensive flaws are correctable errors that the coaching staff will address, perhaps now with greater urgency. What bothered me more about this game was a palpable lack of competitive effort, and the complete lack of fundamentals this team showed. Those are the things that are driving me crazy right now, and #1 among them is fundamental — the constant failure of the players to block out.
This team ball-watches constantly, and I think this is a coaching problem. Calipari should beat it into their heads that once the ball goes up, their #1 responsibility is to turn their attention to putting a body on their man and blocking him out. What this team does is watch the ball as it soars toward the goal, counts the number of rotations, and gradually drifts toward it as though they can will it into their hands.
That's not how rebounding works. Defensive rebounding is a result of preparation and proper execution which begins the moment the offensive player releases the ball. At that point, all energy must be directed toward preventing the offensive team from being able to get near the ball, and getting in front of them in blockout position instantly. When you watch the replay, you will see that this did not happen often enough, or even at all on many possessions.
The other thing is that Kentucky did a relatively weak job rebounding against a zone defense. One of the reasons coaches don't like to play zone is because it makes defensive rebounding much harder, since there are no blockout responsibilities (see above). Even with this advantage, Kentucky was only able to rebound 30% of their own misses. That's just way too low against a zone; the percentage should be around 45% or even more for a team like Kentucky.
Next, Kentucky found itself breaking down far too many times on defense, and leaving the ballhandler open. Kenny Chery is a solid shooter on the season, and it's baffling as to why Kentucky kept running away and leaving him open as if he couldn't throw it in the ocean from a lifeboat in the Pacific. As I say... baffling. It was probably due to a lack of communication, but that simply cannot continue unabated, and it has.
Finally, I thought I saw a lack of urgency on the part of the starters. Now, this is a perception that, quite honestly, could be wrong. It is a very subjective thing that you can't quantify as a fundamental or a statistic, and not every intense team necessarily looks intense on the floor, particularly on offense. On defense, Kentucky looked more confused than lackadaisical.
What this means long term
Honestly, it may mean nothing but a significant loss, and despite the fact Baylor is good, this was a significant loss. As I explained above, this was a checkoff the Wildcats really needed to make, and they failed. They didn't suck, and they didn't prostrate themselves, but they manifestly lost a game they needed to win.
In this context, those who run around accusing upset fans that they are overreacting are wrong. This is a major problem for the Wildcats, and exposes weaknesses that were present in the Providence game, but which we wrote off as good shooting. What it really boils down to is that this team must defend better or it will be faced with a lower seed, and given the weakness of the SEC so far, it could be 4 or even higher if Kentucky drops more of these types of games.
That matters. 2 seeds are roughly half as likely to reach the Final Four as one seeds, and 3 seeds roughly half as likely as 2 seeds to get to the Final Four. So as of right now, Kentucky is in a comparatively poor position to obtain a #1 seed without help from other teams. In other words, they don't control their own destiny anymore.
Some Kentucky fans will look at the glass as half-full, and say that this is the wages of a young team, and that the upside of this team will be a hedge against a sub-1 seed outcome. That is a defensible position, as we are all speculating here. It is also arguably true that Kentucky had a bad game, and/or suffered effects from the difficult travel conditions and the unusual lateness of the game. All these are excuses that have more or less validity as arguments against concern.
On the other hand, this loss seems to be the continuation of a problem that has been ongoing in the games since Michigan State. Right now, Kentucky is shaky at the point, defensively porous, and unable to guard pick and roll situations. They are offensively talented, but have not figured out how to deal with teams as big as they are inside. Also, there is a perception of an effort problem. When Calipari constantly points to Dominique Hawkins as the model for effort, you have to wonder when, if ever, the rest of the more talented players will get the message.
The truth, as it often does, probably lies between those two extremes. But contra those who are content to walk on Big Blue sunshine, I'm troubled by what I see. I am not about to jump off any bridges or walk away from the blog in disgust and never watch another UK game, but I dislike seeing so many problems look this glaring at this point in the season. We should be seeing progress, and last night looked like a regression to me. Again, it may be just a blip on the radar, a pothole if you will, rather than the Grand Canyon. But even potholes can derail seasons, and from now on, the games mean a lot more in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding than they would otherwise.