On Saturday, the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats traveled to Madison Square Garden to play the No. 16 UCLA Bruins in the annual CBS Sports Classic. The contest offered a chance for redemption for the Wildcats, as they played their first ranked opponent since a demoralizing loss to Gonzaga back in November.
Through the first five minutes, both teams trading baskets, and it seemed pretty even. Cason Wallace even got off to another quick start, scoring 5 points in the opening 90 seconds for the Wildcats.
However, Kentucky was forced into difficult shots for much of the half and played uncharacteristic defense as the Bruins’ steadily built a 13-point lead with more than six minutes to go in the half. Thanks to the energy of Chris Livingston and Lance Ware, Kentucky was able to chip the lead down to eight going into halftime, 35-27.
Their energy earned them the right to start the second half. Ware immediately answered as he fought for an offensive board and kicked it out for a Sahvir Wheeler three, which was followed by three straight baskets by Chris Livingston to tie up the game at 38.
UCLA quickly responded to go up 46-40, but the Wildcats kept fighting keeping the lead within reach. In the end, the Wildcats made far too many mistakes to beat a legit top-25 team, falling by a final score of 63-53.
Up next, Kentucky returns home next Wednesday to host Florida A&M.
Now, here are three things to know from the game.
Slow Start, Offensive Woes Spell Doom
Coming into the contest, KenPom had UCLA ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and Kentucky top 10 in defensive efficiency. However, in the battle of strengths, the UCLA offense reigned supreme for the first 20 minutes.
In the first half alone, the Bruins shot just five threes and that was because they were not forced to take them. The Wildcat defense allowed UCLA to shoot 50 percent from the field and were able to get nearly anything they wanted.
When the defense isn’t up to par, the offense needs to step up, and that was the real issue for the Wildcats. 53 points in a regulation game vs. anyone is awful.
On the game, they shot abysmally by nearly every metric, shooting below 35% from the field for the game while having more turnovers (18) than assists (14).
This offense is a major problem. And until it gets solved, Kentucky will keep losing to quality foes.
Who Steps Up?
In the first half, Kentucky only had three players hit more than one field goal: Oscar Tshiebwe, Cason Wallace, and Sahvir Wheeler. To add insult to injury, the rest of the team was less than lackluster, shooting a combined 3/15 from the field. This put the Wildcats in a hole early.
Oscar Tshiebwe had a bad game by his standards with eight points on 4/12 shooting but did grab 16 rebounds.
Other than that, Sahivr Wheeler had 11 points, and Chris Livingston had 14, but Jacob Toppin, Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves combined for 18 points on 6/35 shooting.
How About Lance? And Livingston?
While the Wildcats didn’t receive a lot of help outside of Tshiebwe-Wallace-Wheeler, there were two players that stepped up, Chris Livingston and Lance Ware, giving the Wildcats a fighting chance.
For weeks, John Calipari has been quoted that he needs to play Livingston more. On Saturday night, one of the biggest stages in basketball, Livingston made his case for more playing time. In his best game of the season, Livingston recorded 14 points on 5/9 shooting.
As for Lance Ware, he has been another player that has received inconsistent playing time, has carved himself out a role on the roster in his three seasons.
That role? A high-energy player off the bench, which he provided again on Saturday.
Recording just two points and five rebounds, Ware’s value beyond the box score was on display, a he lead the team in plus/minus, with +8. This ultimately helped Kentucky make this a game when all hope seemed lost.
At this point the Wildcats have lost all three of their ranked matchups in the non-conference and will kick off an even more challenging SEC schedule at the end of this month.
Personally, I don’t like to be negative. Yet, at this point it is fair to question, when or even if this team will start to click.