John Calipari warned the Kentucky faithful that there would be growing pains and that a difficult non-conference schedule could certainly come back to bite the Cats early in the campaign.
Well, one thing you can’t call the long-time head coach on that subject is a liar because through three games, Kentucky sits at 1-2 for the first time since Calipari took the job in 2009 after a 65-62 defeat to No. 6 Kansas in Indianapolis this past Tuesday night in a game they led by as many 13 points early on.
“We did some good stuff. We should’ve won the game. I’ll put it on me. We hit the skids offensively. I’m trying to figure it out,” Calipari said after his team’s second consecutive loss.
Patience isn’t a virtue as the head coach of college basketball’s winningest program, but Calipari’s earned it after the resume he’s built in Lexington, but through three games in one of the weirdest seasons ever already across the sport, the Cats have serious questions and not enough answers through 120 minutes of action with this roster.
“I’m trying to figure out how we get a good shot,” Calipari rhetorically asked during his post-game presser.
That’s one of many questions the Cats have as they head into the December slate of games that’ll provide a good chunk of practice time with longer layoffs between games for the roster to jell further and build that continuity that Calipari’s best teams have had.
However, those questions will continued to be asked as the season moves along.
What is their offensive identity? Who’s going to truly grasp the point guard reigns? Did Isaiah Jackson touch the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters on his two-handed slam on Tuesday? When is a realistic timeline for Keion Brooks Jr.’s return to play? How do you lose a game where your defense holds a top-10 team to just 30 percent shooting on 67 total attempts with 11 turnovers? What’s the key to unlocking Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke’s potential in the half-court offense?
At this point, you can basically ask a question with another question for Kentucky right now.
The main question has been what’s wrong with Kentucky? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, but the nice thing is, we have a pinch of a sample size to take a dive into the issues.
The two-game trend of games spiraling out of control as it moves along has been noticeable for all to see
In both of Kentucky’s losses this week, the game has gotten away from them in both second halves after taking a halftime lead into the locker room for both defeats.
During the Richmond loss, the Cats allowed the Spiders to shoot 59.4 percent from the field on 32 total attempts, while missing 25 of their 36 total attempts, including all six 3-pointers they shot.
The defense wasn’t the issue in the second half of the Kansas defeat, as the Cats held the Jayhawks to just 28.1 percent shooting on 32 attempts from the floor. But again, the Cats struggled in the second stanza, shooting just 11-of-36 overall (30.6%) with eight of their 16 turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
With Calipari’s best teams over the years, they’ve been able to hit that gear to go on that run to put most teams away in the second half. It’s early of course, but this team clearly has not developed that important quality.
On Sunday, when you’re susceptible to backdoor cuts against a heavy Princeton-style offensive attack, you will absolutely get burned by an experienced team that showed absolutely no fear in a less-than-packed Rupp Arena.
Kentucky not only allowed Richmond to shoot 5-of-13 from deep (38%), but they allowed 22 points off 11 turnovers, 28 points in the paint and an 8-0 fastbreak point advantage. The Spiders scored an impressive 1.263 points per possession compared to a disappointing .842 for the Cats on the other end of the floor.
Two nights later, the second half numbers weren’t pretty for either side in Indianapolis, but the Cats were rightfully in the game after an impressive defensive start, despite letting the Jayhawks back into the contest before the break.
Neither team shot about 30 percent, which, that’s disgusting, but the lack of that killer instinct for the Cats on both ends was on full display. With the talent they possess, it more than likely will come with time, but one particular sequence stuck out and flipped the game from a four-point Kentucky lead with four minutes to play to a tie ballgame.
I heard it on the broadcast last night too, but listen to Calipari yell at Mintz to slow it down in transition off the missed 3.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 2, 2020
From a 55-51 advantage to a 53-53 tie with four minutes to play. In a game like this, it’s such a crusher to not get the layup or the putback to fall. pic.twitter.com/j7kTsuCmB9
Stuff happens, but when your opponent only has two players make a shot in an entire half with one scoring 21 of that team’s 36 points and their bulldog of a point guard is struggling with a stomach bug, that’s a game you have to find a way to pull out in the end.
Kentucky in the last two second halves they've played (both losses, obviously): 19-of-66 shooting (28.7%), 2-of-20 from 3 (10%), 19-of-27 from the line (70.3%), three assists on those 19 makes (gross), 20-of-40 on layups (50%), .806 PPP on 73 possessions (more gross).— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 2, 2020
It’s early, and with a bigger roster turnover than usual, it takes time, but it’s hard for guys to find their role when the team lacks any kind of offensive identity or go-to player
Among the problems the Cats have moving into the next few games is that their prominent 1-2 punch hasn’t played and produced like you’d want them to for a team struggling to score the basketball.
You’ve seen the flashes with both Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke, but a lack of consistency so far has plagued them both and the team, specifically in the last two outings.
The numbers for both of them haven’t been a sight for sore eyes either.
Boston and Clarke in the last two games: 20-of-54 shooting (37%), 25 rebounds, six assists, 12 turnovers, a combined 37 percent eFG% and a combined 71.9 ORtg.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 2, 2020
These two have to be better for Kentucky to truly reach their ceiling (same goes for Mintz and Askew, too, which ...)
Personally, I think Kentucky’s struggled offensively in the second half of games because they’ve relied on too much one-on-one basketball. At one point in the second half of the Kansas game, you could hear Calipari yell on the broadcast, “We can’t get by anybody!”
He’s not wrong.
Boston and Clarke’s FDr(s) (fouls drawn rate in a game) have been promising in both losses with both registering over seven in each defeat, but neither have been effective scoring the ball. Clarke shot 50 percent against Richmond (5-of-10), but committed four turnovers and shot just 3-of-11 against Kansas, while Boston shot 12-of-33 from the floor and 0-of-7 from 3.
The potential’s obviously there because they’re both explosive and impressive in spurts.
This sequence of possessions was an experience for Boston. Cans the tough deep two, takes this shot, but gets the rebound and finds Clarke for the slam ... and then ... (wait for it). pic.twitter.com/bCB4irouv7— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 1, 2020
Unfortunately for Big Blue, there’s been too many possessions that have ended like this:
I’m running through some 2H offensive possessions from the week that was for Kentucky and ... woof.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 5, 2020
Some of have been less than ideal, like this: pic.twitter.com/Y7ENDJbULr
One of the tallest tasks for Calipari and his staff is figuring out how to get Boston and Clarke off and running (almost literally). Kentucky’s shown that they’ll be excellent in transition, but when games turn into slugfests (like the Kansas game), how can manufacture points in the half-court? Is the solution putting Clarke on the ball at the one more as the second coming of Tyreke Evans?
Calipari’s teams usually go as far as the point guard(s) can take them
If you’ve read my thoughts about Kentucky over the past few seasons and pay attention to any analysis from those that follow the team, there’s always a common bullet point when it comes to Calipari’s teams: the point guard(s) is/are the engine(s).
Sure, Cal’s had some superb bigs* over his coaching career, but the play of his point guards more often than not dictate how far his teams can go in March.
(*I wanted to take the time and send out the sincerest of condolences to Karl-Anthony Towns and his family for the heartbreaking year they’ve had to endure.)
But so far for this season’s bunch, it doesn’t appear that Davion Mintz and Devin Askew are prepared to take this team all that far.
Mintz and Askew during the last two games: five assists, 10 turnovers ... not to mention shooting 2-of-11 from deep in those last four halves.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 2, 2020
If they're not full table-setters, then so be it, but they at least have to be able to help Kentucky space the floor better than this.
It’s not just Askew and Mintz. Nobody (nobody!) on Kentucky’s roster other than Cam’Ron Fletcher has more assists than turnovers through three games. (Mintz has five turnovers and five assists in 50 total minutes.)
Nobody other than Fletcher! That’s very not good!
Now, let’s put things in perspective before we continue to freak out. Mintz is an experienced transfer, but battled ankle issues last season and hardly played. Even when he did at Creighton during the previous couple of seasons, he played much more frequently away from the ball than on it as their floor general. Even with his experience, it’s going to take some time to jell with a new program.
And, oh yeah, right. Askew should be a senior at Mater Dei this season, so, yeah, that one speaks for itself.
Still, five assists and 10 turnovers combined in the last two games is a recipe for disaster. The words in the cookbook should be simple to get these two going: (take and) make open shots and take care of the basketball. That’s it.
One early positive that can be taken into the rest of this season: Isaiah Jackson is going to dominate at times
Let’s wrap this all up on a good note and talk about how freakin’ awesome Isaiah Jackson has been in the first three games of the season.
In 72 minutes of play, Jackson has 22 points, 30 rebounds and 12 blocks. To put those numbers in perspective, Anthony Davis’ first three games saw him with 40 points, 22 rebounds and 15 blocks.
Now, let’s be honest: Jackson becoming Anthony Davis is highly unlikely because, well, look at Davis right now. He’s a reigning NBA champion and one of the best five basketball players on the planet today. However, Jackson’s eight blocks on Tuesday looked just about as dominant as Davis’ seven-block party against Kansas back in 2011 at Madison Square Garden did.
(Maybe Jackson might get another chance to shut them down too, question mark?)
The other angle of this Isaiah Jackson photo is nuts. pic.twitter.com/2TrIrwDoZA— TJ Beisner (@tjbeisner) December 2, 2020
Jackson has been the brightest bright spot in the few that Kentucky have had so far this season and it’s not even remotely close. He’s shown fluid movement in the open floor, a potentially solid jumper moving into his future and has been downright mean on the defensive end sometimes.
Like Davis, Jackson won’t be the focal point of the offense, as Calipari still likes to brag about to this day. Something, something, he took the fifth-most shots on the team, yeah, yeah, yeah. You get it.
The point is, Jackson doesn’t need to score to assert himself. The preseason mumblings about him were true. He has to be on the floor because he can truly control a game defensively. There’s plenty of issues for Kentucky. Jackson isn’t one of them.