It’s official. Chicken Little has taken up permanent residence in Lexington, as the sky really is falling after watching the Cats lose its fourth straight game at Auburn.
At least that’s the impression one gets on social media as Big Blue Nation (#BBN) is now completely disillusioned and actively searching for N.I.T. support groups.
So, let’s all gather around our favorite Adolph Rupp picture and take a deep breath.
Now repeat after me…Kentucky will not miss the Big Dance in March!
One more time…Kentucky will not miss the Big Dance in March! In fact, let’s change that “N-I-T” to “N-O-T” as in “N-O-T Gonna Happen.”
Kentucky is currently 17-9 overall (6-7 in the SEC) and sit in the middle of a loaded conference this season.
Truth be told, fans should be thinking more about finishing strong en route to a top four seed in the SEC Tournament than visions of “one shining moment.” Four of Kentucky’s final five games are against teams with a better conference record. Missouri, Florida and Alabama are 8-5 and Arkansas is currently 7-6.
Ole Miss is currently 4-9 and should be a win on Senior Day to end the regular season. Running the table over the last five games would allow the Cats to secure a higher tournament seed and clear a path to big things come March.
If that’s not enough reason to get excited, keep in mind that the Cats still have a strong RPI and strength of schedule to fall back on as eight SEC teams are currently in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. The ACC and SEC are widely considered as the nation’s top two conferences this year. The good news is that there’s still plenty of time to turn this into a special season.
The bad news is that none of this matters unless a freshman-dominated team can finally find that “aha” moment and learn how to play with the passion and “desperation” needed to right the ship. While the coaching staff continues to talk about lack of toughness and defensive break downs, most of Big Blue Nation has reached the boiling point with a stagnant offense as players remain lost and confused in mid-February.
From poor shooting to bad decisions, Kentucky’s offensive identify has been one of “organized chaos” this year. The scouting report is pretty easy to follow: a high ball screen for a guard, too much dribbling, poor spacing, a congested lane and no threat to score in the low post. The result is usually a forced shot or turnover that often leads to long droughts of offensive futility. The hole just gets too deep.
So how did we get here? Just how does a team with so much promise and athletic ability end up outside of the Top 25 and out of the national conversation as an elite team? Let’s look at a few of the red flags and offer one key solution to get the Cats back in the win column.
The preseason hype about “positionless” basketball has been big on promises and short on results. Yes, it’s a powerful statement on the recruiting trail where five-star recruits dream about an NBA-style offense that opens up the court with high flying dunks and ESPN highlights. There’s just one problem – we can’t handle the basketball.
At this point, the thought of anyone other than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander handling the ball at crunch time is a scary thought. Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox have both struggled with turnovers and PJ Washington still lacks confidence away from the basket. Jarred Vanderbilt looks to be a very good passer with great floor vision. The problem is that transition points have been hard to come by this year out of the zone defense. That issue should correct itself as the Cats are beginning to settle into more man-to-man principles on the defensive end.
Offensively, watching this team try to score in the half-court has been painful to watch. Thoughts of the Dribble Drive Offense, once the talk of college basketball, is now a distant memory as UK’s entire offensive philosophy is based on the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop for a shooter like Wenyen Gabriel.
Unfortunately, if the pick-and-roll does not lead to an easy basket, the offense typically breaks down, forces up a bad shot or looks for Gilgeous-Alexander as a “bail out” option as he weaves his way to the basket to beat the shot clock.
In the end, too much dribbling, an unbalanced floor and terrible shot selection has made this team look pretty bad at times. Things get even worse when we face a zone. Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for a motion offense designed to attack the rim. But with no real scoring threat in the post and congestion in the lane, it might be time to designate “scorers” and screeners” with clearly defined rules for both. Who knows, maybe we can give the “screeners” an assist every time they set someone up for a basket.
UK’s shooting has been so bad this season that Calipari readily admits that confidence has wavered with each missed shot. Not exactly where you want to be in mid-February with a young team.
“These guys are a little rattled…they can’t make a jumper and it’s leading them to try to do things we don’t need to do,” said Calipari on Wednesday’s postgame show with Tom Leach.
When it comes to shooting, everyone seems to have an opinion as we continue to watch corner jump shots bang off the side of the backboard. Of course, everyone talks about better fundamentals - getting squared up to the basket, better footwork and the elimination of bad shots like the off-balance fade away in traffic.
However, we often forget that shooting problems are typically more mental than physical. One source of comfort is that Calipari has a long relationship with Bob Rotella, a world-renowned sports psychologist that works with UK basketball on an annual basis. I’m sure this team is often reminded of the power of positive thinking and visualization. If not, here’s a little reminder from Rotella himself.
In his book, How Champions Think: In Sports and Life, Rotella shares the story of how he helped LeBron James overcome doubts and negative thoughts as he struggled early in his career with his three-point shooting. Rotella convinced James to watch a video of himself making three-point shots until his sub-conscious mind expected positive results.
“I suggested that he ask the Cavaliers’ staff to make a highlight video for him about eight to twelve minutes long,” said Rotella. “This video would be a LeBron James long-range shooting montage…It could have some of LeBron’s favorite music in the background, helping him to attach the good feelings associated with that music to the act of shooting threes. He would watch it every night. As he fell asleep, he could conjure up images of himself, making three-point shots against tall, quick, tenacious defenders. He could let them fill his dreams.”
After working with Rotella, James significantly improved his three-point shooting percentage after his rookie season and has gone on to win numerous MVP awards. So what have we learned here? Maybe it’s time for less PlayStation at The Wildcat Coal Lodge and a few more video clips of making shots.
It seems the one thing we can all agree on this year is that Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox have emerged as the team’s best players. Both have entered the 30-point club (Knox had 34 points at West Virginia and Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 30 points at home against Vanderbilt). Both are considered first round NBA draft picks (ESPN has projected Knox as high as 12th, while Gilgeous-Alexander comes in at 19th). Both lead the team in scoring (Knox averages 15.2 ppg and Gilgeous-Alexander is at 12.9 ppg) and minutes (Knox has played 855 minutes, while Gilgeous-Alexander is at 834). But as we hit the stretch run, which one should get the ball during crunch time?
Offensively, Knox has proven himself as the team’s best spot up shooter and has the ability to hit big time shots from the perimeter. However, Gilgeous-Alexander, projected to be a back up point guard to Quade Green, has been the biggest surprise this year, breaking down defenders and scoring with both hands around the basket. He’s also been a clutch free throw shooter in crucial situations.
For my money, I’ll put my faith in Knox and his ability to hit tough shots. There’s just one big problem – Knox often disappears in the second half due to an unstructured offense. As an example, the 6-9 forward was on fire in the first half against Auburn and led the team with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Unfortunately, he did not attempt a shot over the final 13 minutes as the offense collapsed and ultimately ran out of steam.
To combat any future scoring droughts, the time has come to implement what I’ll call the “Knox Rule” – a special command that assures Kevin Knox will get at least one touch prior to any shot. Yes, the 30- second shot clock is a factor, but I’d rather take my chances going through our best shooter. The “Knox Rule” can be imposed at any time and will be crucial in late game situations. Most importantly, there are two key benefits that just might give some structure to a struggling offense: 1) Knox will work harder to get open if he knows that the “Knox Rule” is in effect. 2) Other players will make a conscious effort to get him open to start the offense. Both are much needed upgrades to a dysfunctional offense.
Will the “Knox Rule” be the answer to an improved offense? Could this be the “tweak” that we’ve all been waiting for? At this point, anything is possible.
Calipari, for one, has made it clear that “I’m not cracking” and neither should you. As for Chicken Little, just remind him that there’s still plenty of time to make the perfect omelet. All we need is the right ingredients.