The Kentucky Wildcats lost their second game in a row at South Carolina last night. The Wildcats once again struggled to make shots, continue to throw their bodes at opponents in hopes of drawing fouls, and continued to demonstrate a head-shaking offensive strategy.
The South Carolina Gamecocks deserve a lot of credit for consistent basketball. They played the same way they have played all season, they didn't quail at Kentucky's big run to get back into the game, and they mostly made winning plays down the stretch. They are to be commended on their well-earned victory.
Obviously, Kentucky must now try to figure out what is going wrong. Of course, most of the Big Blue Nation could tell them that the offensive strategy I have helpfully labeled Dribble Drive, Fling and Hope (DDFH) is not only not a coherent offensive strategy, it is an ineffective one. Kentucky, coming into the SEC season, was one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Somehow, in two months, they have become one of the most inefficient offensive teams in the country. Barring major injury or a complete breakdown in team chemistry such as an internal fight, that should be impossible.
Take a look at this chart I created. The SEC season starts at game 14. UK's offensive efficiency at that point was about 117, or 1.17 points per possession, represented by the dashed red line. The green line represents the trend:
As you can see, Kentucky's offensive efficiency has declined significantly over time, and dramatically in the last four games. Since the Ole Miss game in Rupp Arena on February 4th, Kentucky has only once reached an offensive efficiency of 117.
This has to be fixed. There is no reason for Kentucky to be this offensively bad, and it all started when John Calipari demanded that they drive the ball, that they were settling too much. What we have seen here is a complete overreaction. I'll get more into that later.
Here's our stats, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy's site.
South Carolina box
Kentucky's offense has deteriorated into something completely unrecognizable. I call it the DDFH, but honestly, it deserves no name. They have to fix that right away, as there is no way they can win even one more game with this strategy.
I saw a lot of UK bodies diving for balls, fighting hard for possessions. That's a good thing. The want-to is there, I think.
John Calipari, in frustration from last season no doubt, has completely over-coached this basketball team. He has taken from them any semblance of fun and turned the season into drudgery. This is truly the team without joy. There's nothing wrong with these kids, and everything wrong with the way they have been coached this season.
This is criticism of Calipari, but it's also understandable. Coach Cal had a season last year that no coach would ever want. His determination not to repeat it is the reason why we are where we are. He needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get this team's offense back were it was, and become the coach that we all have seen in the past.
Despite their best intentions and my unwavering support, the NCAA emphasis change has resulted in chaos. In trying to take advantage of the change, coaches with athletic teams, like Calipari, have made their team unwatchable. What we are seeing isn't basketball, it is an effort to take advantage of a rule change. What we need is better basketball, and forget about the rule change.
This hasn't worked because the officials are calling touch fouls, but they are allowing a lot of contact around the rim, where Kentucky tries to score. Officials are just not going to call 90 fouls per game, so they have to let something go. I know this is not in accordance with the rules, but unfortunately, that appears to be the reality.
When will this team learn that when you are underneath with the ball and surrounded by four players, trying to muscle it in all that traffic isn't a plan? We should be taking the ball back out and resetting the play.
I liked how Kentucky has taken Calipari's coaching and raised their hands on the three-point line. They are doing much better at that. This is undeniable proof of coachability, so their poor play tends to make me think the offensive strategy, if you can call it that, is deeply flawed. So change it.
Three point shooting was fine. Free throw shooting was fine. UK lost because, once again, they could not make layups. I don't have play-by-play data, so I can't tell you how many layups UK missed, but it was very many.
South Carolina is a poor ballhandling team, and yet Kentucky managed only 3 steals against them, and turned them over only 6 times.
You can win the rebounding and free throw rate stats all you want, but when you lose by 10% in eFG%, you lose.
Kentucky had only eight 2-point field goals in 35 (!) attempts. They made almost as many 3-pointers. From the floor, Kentucky scored 36 points in the entire 40-minute game. I don't know if I've ever heard of shooting this poor.
Teams are learning to take advantage of our switching defense. Two or three times, the Gamecocks got it to their bigs isolated underneath against one of Kentucky's guards.
There is a lot of fight in this team, but their execution is so unfortunate that the fight is not enough. When you are out-executed by the worst team in the SEC, you know you have hit rock bottom.
The team played significantly better with John Calipari in the locker room watching on TV. I don't know that is enough to indict him, but it is evidence that he's doing something wrong.
Don't let the fact that UK assisted on 71% of their made baskets fool you. Passing was not very good yesterday. It never is in the DDFH.
Four Kentucky players made only one field goal in multiple attempts. Randle, Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein were a combined 4-19 in shots from the floor.
James Young had 5 turnovers. In his past five games, Young has had 19 turnovers. That's almost 4 per game. He did make some big 3-point shots that kept us in the game, and he made a good free throw percentage.
Dakari Johnson came as close as anyone to having a good game, and he looked much better in this game than against Arkansas.
Both the Harrison twins give up too easy on defense. Teams are beginning to try to get switches that put Andrew or Aaron against a big, and they haven't developed the character to defend them. Andrew shot the ball only 3 times yesterday, and had 4 assists, so clearly the message was received after 15 shots versus Arkansas. He also made a big shot that gave Kentucky a chance to win.
Body language continues to be a problem. Too much complaining about calls. Some of this is defensible in that it is a reflection of their passion, but too much of it is a very bad thing that leads to head-hanging.
Willie Cauley-Stein actually played pretty well. He didn't score enough and could have rebounded more, but this was an okay game for him.
Alex Poythress didn't shoot well, but he did other things, like come up with seven rebounds, a block and two assists. The diving save toward the end demonstrates Alex's commitment, and he wasn't the only one.
Jarrod Polson defended great yesterday, and played pretty well.
Dominque Hawkins went out there and tried. Not sure he succeeded at anything.
Julius Randle was beastly on the boards, but continues to miss layups and easy shots. He only had one turnover, and honestly, other than scoring, he was pretty good. His defense continues to improve, and that's a good thing.
Tying it all up
Right now, Kentucky is at rock bottom. It is still possible for them to continue to dig, or at least try, but these last two games are the archetype for a team that has bottomed out. I really don't know what this means for the future, but I can tell you that unlike last year's team, this team doesn't quit trying. In fact, the last two games, they have tried so hard that they've blown past everything but effort. You can't do that in basketball. When you get focused on your own effort, you cannot be focused on what the team is doing.
This is the inflection point we have all been waiting for. This is where the season either collapses into disarray, or the team rebuilds itself into something better. I have no idea which one will happen and neither do you. Meltdowns like this don't always mean collapse, although there are plenty of examples where the team does disintegrate (see Kentucky Wildcats, 2013). If we see that, I won't be surprised. Having said that, the alternate outcome is also possible. We'll just have to wait and see.
Kentucky has little time to fix things. The Alabama Crimson Tide comes to Rupp Arena Tuesday night, and next Saturday, we get to go down to Gainesville to try to get revenge on the Florida Gators. Given the divergent paths of those two worthies at the moment, it will be most interesting to see what happens in that game. Of course, Alabama is also fully capable of beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena in it's current state of apparent chaos.
As to NCAA Tournament seeding, I think we can just about forget that for now. We'll be in there, but it's anybody's guess were. Given our current losing streak, we might even wind up with a double-digit seed. This has been a pretty ugly week, and it doesn't get easier going forward.
I know that a lot of you are down and angry right now, which is why we allowed a lot of venting in the post-game thread. That won't be allowed in this one. This is a place for rational discussion, and player and/or coach bashing will not be permitted. Please keep this firmly in mind, and comport yourselves in accordance with the best tradition of A Sea of Blue.