The Kentucky Wildcats are still licking their wounds after suffering a terrible loss on the road in South Bend Saturday evening. A court-storming gut-punch isn’t exactly how John Calipari wanted his team’s first true road-test of the season to culminate.
After dropping to 7-2 on the season, clamors for a different approach to Calipari’s scheduling philosophy have rung louder than ever in the Commonwealth.
Did seven straight cupcake games fail to prepare a newly assembled roster for a Power 5 road game?
Hard to argue against it at this point.
As if losing to a very average Notre Dame team wasn’t bad enough — UK was surprisingly pushed around in the paint — creating concerns heading into battles against much tougher competition.
Despite another predictable monster game from Oscar Tshiebwe — Kentucky was shockingly handled 34-26 on the boards.
It marked the first time all season that UK had been out-rebounded.
It was deeply unsettling to watch the Fighting Irish have their way in the paint for segments of the game.
Then Kentucky struggled to guard cutters late in the game raising genuine question marks about their defensive discipline heading into the new year.
One thing can be said, there’ll be no complaining about poor competition this weekend.
Next up for the Cats is a battle with the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes in the CBS Sports Classic. The game will tip-off Saturday at 5:15 pm ET on, you guessed it, CBS.
It’ll be quite the change of scenery for this Kentucky team, as they’ll trade the small town of South Bend (IN) for Las Vegas.
Just maybe the brights lights of T-Mobile Arena will get the team’s juices flowing. If not, and there’s a similar performance like we saw against Notre Dame, UK will find themselves on a worrisome two-game losing skid heading into the Louisville game.
To put this game into perspective — Ohio State is a really good basketball team that’s capable of running Kentucky off the floor if they don’t come to play.
The Buckeyes are currently 8-2 on the year and will be coming off an impressive 73-55 win against No. 22 Wisconsin.
If you remember, OSU also knocked off #1 Duke after a furious second half comeback in the ACC/Big Ten challenge just a few weeks ago.
Defensively, UK is going to have their hands full trying to contain junior forward E.J. Liddell l who’s a bona fide college basketball superstar.
The 6-foot-7 240 pound Belleville (IL) native is averaging 20.6 points per game and snatching down seven rebounds. He just dropped 28 points on the Badgers and has scored 23 or more points in five games this season.
Liddell is even averaging an incredible three blocks per game. The guy is a legitimate national player of the year candidate. The Cats better have an effective strategy to keep Liddell from lighting them up, or it’s going to be a rough time in Vegas.
Talking on defense and getting five guys to play together for an entire possession is something that Kentucky has struggled with at times, especially last weekend in South Bend.
On Monday, John Calipari spoke with Tom Leach on his weekly call-in radio show and praised Ohio State’s tweener-type bigs who stand only around 6-foot-7 but can get after you with their raw toughness on both ends of the floor.
“They’re very physical. Their big guys are not 6-11, but they’re 6-7, long and strong. If you wait for them to get in your body, you’ve got no chance.” Calipari said. “They go high-low, set unbelievable screens, many of them on one possession. It’ll be a hard game for us.”
The Buckeye players that Calipari was referencing are 6-foot-8 sophomore Zed Key, 6-foot-8 senior Kyle Young, and 6-foot-6 senior Justin Athens. Each player is averaging in the neighborhood of 10 points per game. 20 of OSU’s 36 rebounds per game have come from the likes of Liddell, Key and Young.
Matching the Buckeyes’ intensity and grit will be a key component in how this game plays out.
When you think about relying on toughness from any front-court player not named Oscar Tshiebw, it probably makes the Big Blue Nation sweat a little bit.
One of Keion Brooks, Bryce Hopkins or Daimion Collins really needs to step up over the next 10 days if this team wants the season to stay on track.
Looking back at what happened offensively last week, it’s still hard for me to fathom how Kentucky managed to lose at Notre Dame while only turning the ball over a mere five times.
But when you shoot 2/19 from behind the arc, you can lose to just about anybody.
To think, after offseason chatter that John Calipari was hell-bent on getting shooters to Lexington and letting the long range shots fly — this year’s team is actually attempting fewer threes per game than last year’s 9-16 team.
If there was one thing I’d pinpoint as the most important area of emphasis heading into this critical matchup with Ohio State, it’s absolutely shooting.
The game of basketball can be over-complicated with analysis, but at the end of the day, making shots is all that matters.
All the Cats can do is try and mentally move on from what was a bizarre, puzzling loss to Notre Dame. The inexcusable blunder will sting even worse if UK follows it up with lackluster play in Vegas against Ohio State.
Kentucky fans will get to see a familiar face when Johnny Juzang’s UCLA Bruins take on North Carolina in the first game of the CBS Sports Classic.
If nothing else it’ll be great to get the juices flowing for what is definitively a big game on a big stage.
The opportunity for signature wins has been less than abundant this season, but the Cats have a real change to make some noise in Vegas on Saturday.
As of Wednesday, ESPN’s matchup predictor lists Kentucky, yes Kentucky, as the favorite with a 61.6% chance of winning.
Time to shine.
Time 5:15 pm ET on December 18th.
Location: T-Mobile Arena Las Vegas, Nevada
TV Channel: CBS
Replay: SEC Network (check local listings)
Listen: UK Sports Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt.
Score Projection: KenPom projects a 72-71 win for Ohio State.