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The good, bad and ugly from Kentucky vs. Arkansas & Tennessee

One of the rougher weeks Kentucky has had, but there were some bright spots.

Nick Richards Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

With the regular season winding down, college basketball fans have circled March 17th on the calendar.

Selection Sunday will kick off the official start of the NCAA Tournament as brackets (and top seeds) will be revealed to a live TV audience.

The big question is can the No. 4-ranked Kentucky Wildcats find a way to hold on to a top seed or will tough losses against Duke and Tennessee come back to haunt a team that’s most likely failed the “eye test” this past week in poor efforts against both Arkansas and Tennessee.

On Tuesday, the Wildcats trailed by as many as 15 points at home against the Razorbacks before fighting its way back to a 70-66 win at Rupp Arena. The real blow was an embarrassing 71-52 beat down on the road against a Tennessee team that was out to avenge a previous loss (just as lopsided, 86-69) in Lexington.

Now that the smoke has cleared, let’s look at the good, the bad and ugly from the past week.


The Bucket List

You know it’s been a rough week when Tyler Herro’s free throw percentage gets top billing. But it just might be a historic season for the Wisconsin native who is currently shooting 93.4% from the line this year on 71-of-76 shooting.

If the season ended today, Herro would take over the school record for highest free throw percentage in a season that’s currently held by Travis Ford (1994) and Kyle Macy (1980) who both finished their respective seasons at 91.2%.

Herro’s career-high 29 points against Arkansas was also the lone offensive highlight of the week as the freshman sharp-shooter was 9-of-10 from the field and connected on five three-pointers. Of course, Herro was also 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the victory.

Ironically, the nation’s top free throw shooter resides just down the road and wears Cardinal red as Louisville’s Ryan McMahon is currently shooting 94.6%. Regardless, Herro stills has the quote of the year, as kids throughout the Commonwealth will forever proclaim, “I’m A Bucket” after made free throws.

Big Nick

If there was one bright spot over the past two games, you might just look to Nick Richards. The 6-foot-11 center came off the bench against Arkansas to get 15 rebounds in the absence of Reid Travis.

Richards also added seven points and three blocks in the win and played well enough to get the starting nod at Tennessee over EJ Montgomery. Against the Vols, Richards was once again one of the few bright spots as he finished with eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes of work.

While limited offensively, Richards is a good free throw shooter and is active around the rim on both ends of the floor. If he can rebound and block shots, he has the ability to change the game in the post.

However, if the big guy gets too far away from the basket on the high ball screen, he’s at a high risk for turning it over and often commits silly fouls away from the basket. For the week, Nick gets a solid B on the report card and just might be ready for a breakout game.


Out of Synch

Over the past two games, the Kentucky offense has been brutal, first against an Arkansas matchup zone, and then against Tennessee’s pressure defense that forced 17 turnovers.

In the half-court offense, a John Calipari offense typically revolves around high ball screens and pick-and-rolls. You’ll also see the occasional curl to the ball that has been very effective at times.

But when times get tough, this team need some set plays to get an easy score and avoid long scoring droughts. (The Cats went a combined 16 minutes without a field goal at Tennessee).

Kentucky has to find a way to get Keldon Johnson going again, so why not insert a few baseline screens to keep the defense honest? More screen-the-screener action for Washington and a clear out option for Hagans are also sorely needed to stop the bleeding and put points on the board.

Against the zone, the Cats have been at their worst this year. Playing catch on the perimeter and settling for three-point shots is not ideal and often leads to lapses in productivity.

Instead, the Cats have to flash to the ball, play a high-low game from the elbow into the post, and run the baseline to get better shots. Most importantly, we have to hit open shots.

Defensive Help

What’s happened to Kentucky’s defensive pressure on the perimeter? Did they just assume that the trio of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson had it all figured out?

Well, not exactly, as both Arkansas and Tennessee had its way with the Kentucky guards, hitting shots and getting to the rim with ease. Even worse, this is not about getting screened off and having to recover. The big issue is staying between their man and the basket and stopping straight line drives.

As Calipari has said on numerous occasions, trading baskets is not good enough to make a deep run this season. If Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker can play better defense, then it might be time to share more minutes during the postseason.

Who’s ready to D Up?

The Reid Travis Effect

For anyone that ever doubted the impact of Reid Travis this season, the past two games tell the story.

Travis, at 6-foot-8, is the Wildcats’ lone enforcer and the only player that can match the physicality needed to bang in the post within the SEC. Travis also has a high basketball IQ and has the ability to use his body to get to the basket and open up the lane for Kentucky’s guards.

Most importantly, he’s been a coach on the floor this season and brings leadership to a young team that has a tendency to get highly emotional when things get tough. As someone that’s now played in 124 games, Travis’ job is to keep everyone in check and bring out the best in each player.

The “Reid Travis Effect” is very real.


Sideline Explosion

As frustration reached a fever pitch on Saturday in Knoxville, the CBS camera crew caught UK Coach John Calipari going ballistic on Tyler Herro during a timeout. We all know that Cal is intense on the sidelines and often gets into players pretty hard on the bench.

However, this interaction with Herro was a little out of the norm and wasn’t a good look for a young team that was frustrated and clearly searching for some answers.

When asked why he was so hard on Herro, Calipari gave a logical explanation in his postgame comments and certainly get the benefit of the doubt.

“Because I’m telling him what to do, and he’s choosing not to do it,” Calipari said.

However, in that moment, one could argue that tough love was not the answer. Maybe this is all on Herro, who has taken his swag-o-meter to a new level this year. Maybe it’s a communication breakdown that needs some refinement.

Whatever the case, this team could use a few more words of encouragement and positive vibes from the bench as they get ready for the postseason.

Now, let’s all have a group hug this week and move on to Ole Miss.