The season has not gotten off to the start that UK fans would have hoped for. Some of that is bad luck - looking at the officials on the MSU game in particular, because while no one is or should be happy with the basic effort put forth in the Gonzaga game, we'd be in a lot less panic if we had come out with a win in the MSU game. Unfortunately, a lot of what's going on is not bad luck. It's a continuation of trends that have plagued UK's basketball team for the previous two seasons or more, still bleeding into this one, despite personnel that should offer as much balance as Cal has had in almost any season since he arrived in Lexington.
Emotions are getting a bit draining as a UK fan of recent years, so I wanted to get some thoughts on digital paper but not in the style of postmortem threads, but a look at multi-game trends that are surfacing about what is going right, and what is really troubling me. This team will perform better as the season goes on, but there are warning signs that have to be addressed to prevent another unacceptable flameout.
Cason Wallace: It's already clear that Wallace has the whole package to be a top-flight lead guard. He can score from all levels, he plays under control, and most impressive of all is his excellent defense. He's the only player on the team who is consistently locked in on defense and making the right plays on that end of the floor. And with his size and determination, he's been a force on that end. It's why Cal basically won't take him out of games at all, so far. He's also a good playmaker, though Wheeler spends most of the time being more ball dominant when they play together.
Oscar's tenacity: Oscar is almost picking up right where he left off an NPOY campaign. He's scoring and rebounding in bunches, and he's covering a lot of sins on the offensive end with his offensive rebounding and his ability to score without any set plays. He's made some mental mistakes and isn't yet playing quite as much defense as he's capable thus far, but he's carrying a huge load for the team and doing a good job.
Wheeler's turnovers: This has been a bugaboo for Wheeler in the past, but he's keeping the turnovers under control so far this year. And he's also doing a generally solid job as a playmaker. We need more of the playmaking to appear against the good competition, but most likely it will.
Lance Ware's defense: Ware's ability to play good individual and team defense as the backup big has been really important so far this season. He could stand to look for his shot in the post a bit more (if only to draw some fouls), but with the inexperience of Onyenso and the way Collins has been looking, Ware's performance is much needed.
Reeves' scoring: Reeves is one of the few players on the team who can create a shot for himself, even on broken plays, and he's adept at just scoring the ball. He hasn't shown up as strong in the "real" games unfortunately, but he's shooting 46% from three on the season and is the team's second leading scorer despite playing only about half time. His ability to create looks like it will be more critical than we might have hoped, if Cal can't manage to find any answers for shot creation within an offensive scheme.
I wish there were more to highlight on the positive side, but as of right now, that's what we've got.
Up front, I'd like to say I don't enjoy calling out individual players, and prefer to think of these things as bad habits, guys being placed in suboptimal situations, or just not being coached up to the level they could be yet (it's still early, and for some still new to college bball), but there are some things that need to be corrected and schemed around because we don't have a super team and we have to make things work with the pieces we have. And some of what's wrong is on Cal himself.
Shot selection: how many years are we at now where this seems to be an issue for Cal's teams? Reeves and CJ can't find open looks within the offensive sets, the wrong guys are taking too many shots as a result, and the selection of shots is often bad - they're the shots the other team likes us to take, because we can't get the shots we would prefer to take. In particular, Toppin's shot profile sticks out as an example. Toppin leads the team in shot attempts, and he has the worst effective field goal percentage on the team. That's a very bad combo. This is because a ridiculous half of Toppin's attempts on the year are two-point jumpshots. It would be better to quit passing up three-point shots to take the one-dribble rhythm jumper from 18 feet. There are other issues, like Wheeler being third on the team in 3PA per minute. Teams dare Wheeler to shoot, so he has to take some, but he shouldn't be third on the team in attempts. This is mostly emblematic of UK's inability to get the looks it wants within the offense, so we settle for these. Cal has to figure this out - every piece is there for this not to be a problem.
Rebounding: IMO this has to be the most surprising issue so far. UK was easily outclassed on the boards by both MSU and Gonzaga. It seems the rest of the team simply figures Oscar will grab them all and mostly no one else is even in position to rebound. Livingston is the only other player consistently fighting and holding up his end on the glass. I believe this problem will get corrected quickly, because if not, this season is sunk.
Coaching: To call a spade a spade, Izzo and Few basically embarrassed Cal in those matchups. Inbounds plays, zone defenses (whether facing them or Cal's extreme aversion to ever trying to use it), minutes distributions and matchups, over-reliance on switch-everything defenses when we don't have that personnel, and offensive schemes and play-calling...just about everything a coach does in game have been advantage to opponents so far. Cal's track record is great, but some of these have been so persistent that it's worrying.
Late game situations: opposing coaches have some very easy blueprints for late game execution against UK. Screening until we settle for a severe mismatch on a switch is the most obvious. Face guarding whichever of Reeves or Fredrick is in the game and forcing non-shooters to take bad shots. This is maybe one where the lack of full-team practice time is a more reasonable excuse, but we need to have a gameplan and execute better. We also need to figure out which lineup to close out games with - right now I don't think Cal knows the best answer to that.
It looks like Cal is already starting to shorten his rotation. Thiero is basically out entirely (queue the transfer speculation) Onyenso is on mopup duty and Collins is losing ground quickly. Maybe a shorter rotation develops some cohesion that helps some of the issues, or maybe not. But some guys have gotten some very extended minutes without producing, and that's hurt us pretty bad in both losses. On the other hand, Oscar and Cason can't play 40 minutes a game and survive the season, so to some degree some guys just have to step up. There's still lots of time left in this season to figure a lot of this out, but it's no longer a question of if we have weaknesses and what they are. There's no more runway for excuses considering the summer practice and Bahamas opportunities for extra work. We have to start seeing the solutions instead of more of the same and hoping we just "get a few breaks." That's a path for an R32 exit. Some of the solutions might require some difficult or uncomfortable situations for you, Cal. BBN is getting desperate for results.
Did I miss any of the obvious rights or wrongs?