It is ever thus: Losses expose all those weaknesses and deficiencies you had hoped could be masked, overcome or eliminated.
Ben Simmons is clearly a great player. (Not so great, maybe, that the LeBron-Magic comparison on TV was necessary, especially as he was sitting over there on the bench at the time, and for much of the first half.) But LSU’s win over Kentucky was not so much Ben Simmons as it was a bunch of other, less-heralded players who are good, certainly, but didn’t have the multi-star power coming into college of Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.
Nonetheless, those guys outfought, outhustled, outran, outjumped, outscrapped, outshot and outplayed the Wildcats for pretty much the entire night. They got loose balls and multiple offensive rebounds. They fooled Kentucky on the most basic of inbounds plays. They doubled on the dribbler, and the dribbler kept dribbling into the double team, time after time after time.
They set picks on offense and fought through picks on defense.
Their shots bounced and rattled and rolled in, Kentucky’s shots did not. One of their poor free-throw shooter made 9 of 14; one of Kentucky’s good free-throw shooter made zero of three.
When the Wildcats were closing the gap in the second half, it wasn’t LSU that folded, it was Kentucky.
And in the process, all the things we didn’t want to confront about this UK group came oozing to the surface like glue stains on cheap wallpaper.
• Kentucky has no inside game, and other teams are beginning to realize it.
• Isaiah Briscoe can be a liability down the stretch with his poor decision-making and lousy free-throw shooting – which is getting only worse. He plays some gritty defense and throws himself after loose balls, but the deficit seems to get worse every game.
• Skal is a season-long project. There will be no miracle overnight transformation.
• Jamal Murray mysteriously disappears for long stretches of the game. Not sure whether that’s his fault, the point guard’s fault or the coach’s fault.
• Derek Willis is a poor defensive player. Not sure if he's just slow, or lazy, or doesn't listen, or refuses to learn. It would be nice if he buried enough three’s to make up for it, but he doesn’t – or, at least, he hasn’t.
• Alex Poythress is not "the beast." He’s this team’s best rebounder and probably its best inside threat. But he isn’t overpowering anybody.
• Marcus Lee is all athleticism, but not enough technique. He blocks some shots and is a great outlet for occasional alley-oops, but this team will not feast on alley-oops like some past UK teams.
• Worst of all to come out of the LSU game: Tyler Ulis is human. Perhaps he’s lost confidence in the teammates he’s been trying to set up for open shots, but he seemed occasionally frazzled and even sloppy against LSU.
When Murray began to go off in the second half, much as he had against Ohio State, there was a glimmer of optimism. Midway through the second half, Kentucky had closed a 14-point deficit to four, outscoring LSU 19-9 in less than six minutes. Murray had scored 10 of those points.
That should have been the "here we go" moment that great teams almost always have. (Back in the day, they called it the Yankees’ "5 o’clock lighting," because that was the time of afternoon, usually the sixth or seventh inning, when they would mount their comebacks that generally sealed their wins.)
But, for Kentucky, there followed turnovers, missed shots, missed rebounds, fouls. Incredibly, if the play-by-play account is accurate, Murray did not take a shot for the next five and a half minutes. By the time he next made a shot, the deficit had grown to 10 – and growing.
After seeing its lead slip to four, LSU scored nine of the next 11 points, going over and through Kentucky like it was swatting away Alabama.
No respect for the Men in Blue, the Beasts of the SEC.
Having said all that, however, hope is certainly not lost. Not being a great team doesn’t mean it can’t be a good team. And good teams often do as well in March as great teams. John Calipari has sent good teams to the Final Four before.
This bunch might be reminiscent of the 2010-11 squad – Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins, Doron Lamb.
That team was 12-2, ranked 10th in the country and just off a win over Louisville when it began SEC play. It went into Georgia. Lost. Into Alabama. Lost. Into Mississippi and Florida. Lost and lost.
It couldn’t win on the road. Its SEC record was 10-6, but away from Rupp it was 2-6.
Then came tournament time and it all turned around. The Cats swept the SEC tourney and rolled through Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina on their way to the Final Four.
There are differences. That team had bulk (Harrellson) and size (Jones) inside – though Jones was written off as a puzzling disappointment in much the way Labissiere is being written off this year.
And maybe there are striking similarities. Consider Liggins – poor shooter, poor decision-maker, poor free-throw shooter, but ferocious defender, who turned it all around in the tournament. Remind you of someone?
Everyone keeps bringing up last year’s Kentucky team (the context being primarily that this team is not that team). But Calipari has shown a knack for developing his teams for just the right shining moment in time.
Just saying: It’s too early to close the book on this UK team, even if the current chapter is not good reading.