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Kentucky Basketball: 5 Keys to get back on track and beat Texas A&M

Here is what UK must do to get back on track.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a week makes.

After dominating the Bragging Rights Game against Louisville on December 29th, followed by thrilling wins over Georgia and LSU, this year’s UK team seemed to be full of swagger heading into 2018. Now one week into the New Year and Big Blue Nation is in full panic mode after watching the Cats put up little fight after losing Saturday night at Tennessee for the third consecutive season.

UK Coach John Calipari’s post-game comments added fuel to the fire as Cal said what we’ve all been thinking, finally admitting that the Cats have a “toughness issue.” He also used words like “embarrassing” and “manhandled” as the Cats looked overwhelmed in a hostile road environment.

UK’s second-half collapse almost seemed inevitable as Cal told sideline reporter Kris Budden that “there’s a couple (guys) that aren’t playing desperate” enough to win as he headed to the locker room with an eight point lead. Unfortunately, he was exactly right as the Cats completely fell apart on both ends of the court and must now hit the reset button to get things back on track.

Here are five thoughts that might help the Cats right the ship and get back into the conversation as a national title contender.

Find an Identity

With foul trouble and a continued lack of depth, the zone defense quickly turned from choice to necessity as Tennessee torched the nets in the second half with too many easy looks, great ball movement and dominant post play that left the Cats scrambling to find shooters.

For all the talk about UK’s length and athleticism, we often looked lost and confused on the defensive end as the Vols had great success finding holes in the zone with effective high to low post passing and offensive stick backs. In a recurring theme this season, we got beat on the boards and always seemed to come up short in running down 50-50 balls.

The zone defense has been a fun experiment this season, but it’s not the answer for a deep run in March as the Cats must find a way to stop the ball and find a lockdown defender. Let’s return to man-to-man principles that put pressure on the ball, stop dribble penetration and push post players away from the basket.

The big question is will this team be a contender or pretender come March?

The defense will tell the story.

Shake It Up

Despite bumps along the way, Calipari has continued to stay with an all freshmen starting lineup of Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, P.J. Washington, Kevin Knox and Nick Richards. Starting five freshman does have its benefits, as this “Fab Five” approach brings a lot of national attention to Lexington, helps with recruiting and most importantly, provides a little cover as starting the “youngest team in college basketball” tempers expectations and takes some of the pressure off early in the season.

But we’re way past on the job training as January brings a new set of challenges in the rough and tumble SEC, a much improved conference from a year ago. This might be the perfect time to shake things up and insert sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones into the starting lineup, especially on the road where toughness and composure are keys to success.

Both are even tempered, play with composure and won’t get rattled when things get tough. Most importantly, both guys can hit the perimeter jump shot so why not start your five best offensive players to help avoid those long scoring droughts in a stagnant offense.

Establish Consistency

As UK continues to search for leadership and that “go to” guy to get key buckets down the stretch, it must also find a degree of consistency that can carry this team through an entire season. At Tennessee, Knox and Diallo, our top two scorers, went AWOL and had little impact on the outcome. Both struggled from the field and never could find a rhythm on the offensive end that ultimately resulted in forced shots, frustration and poor decision making. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also went from feast to famine as he struggled to get to the basket against a tough Tennessee defense that was aggressive around the rim and challenged dribble penetration. Fortunately, P.J. Washington has found a new gear and is gaining confidence with each game. Who steps up next is anyone’s guess. This team must find some consistency and carve out an identify to reach its goals this year.

New Offensive Sets

With talk of the Dribble Drive Offense and “positionless” basketball, it was once a forgone conclusion that this UK team would score at will and keep opposing teams on their heels with an attack mentality and easy transition baskets. Fast forward to January and we now have a group that takes poor shots (even looking selfish at times) with too much emphasis on jump shots and three-point attempts. What happened to driving to the rack zone and getting to the free throw line? What happened to “positionless” match up advantages? It might be time to go back to basics on the offense end and run a few more set plays for Knox and Diallo. This team needs a little more structure, more defined roles and other options besides the pick and roll. A few more quick hitters for Knox and Diallo would be a good place to start.

Depth Perception

The most glaring issue on Saturday was our lack of depth. The loss of Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker has finally taken its toll as things remain a little fuzzy on how to win big games with a short bench. Foul trouble and injuries are part of the game, but things like the flu bug and continued cramping and fatigue are unexpected and present a whole new challenge with an eight-man rotation. Tai Wynyard has missed significant time with a back injury and would have been a valuable body off the bench at Tennessee. In fact, the UK bigs have been a little soft at times this season and a healthy Wynyard could of at least banged in the paint and moved people out of the post. One thing is clear, it’s past time for a decision on Jarred Vanderbilt. Either he plays or we move on and find a different path.

While another mid-season loss at Tennessee is hard to swallow, it’s way too early to give up on a team loaded with talent and ability. Sure, this team has been hard to watch at times, but there’s a big difference between the panic and reset buttons. One is about fear and accepting defeat, while the other is about fixing the bugs and making a fresh start. The good news is that the reset button also clears out memory, and this team would do well to forget the trip to Knoxville and focus on playing with desperation and a sense of urgency. The reboot starts now.