This past weekend was an historic weekend. Not because of how well Kentucky played, because truth be told, they didn’t play well enough to win. Yet, history was made because Gonzaga, Arizona, Auburn, Purdue, Kansas, Texas Tech and Kentucky all lost on the same weekend. That equates to seven of the top ten teams in America, according to the Associated Press poll – and seven of the top ten losing the same weekend is a first time ever event in the history of AP polling. If misery loves company, picking up a loss against Arkansas was miserable to be sure, but there was plenty of miserable company among the college basketball powerhouses to keep the Wildcats company.
The first half opened and the Razorbacks punched the Wildcats early and threw them off their game. As the first twenty ticked by, eventually Kentucky seemed to find their footing and managed to claw back into the game. After the midgame break, the Wildcats came back from the dressing room and for the essential first five minutes of the second half, they came out with a renewed sense of purpose. They ran, they pushed the ball, and then surged into the lead.
The rest of the second half was back and forth with multiple lead changes and neither team pulling away very far. In the end, the Cats came out on the losing side of a 75-73 final that was frustrating but did have a few bright spots to remember. Oscar Tshiebwe once again played like the potential collegiate player of the year. 30 points and 18 rebounds meant that he carried the team for much of the game. Both Sahvir Wheeler and Ty Ty Washington returned to the court. Both point guards looking a little rusty but as the game went by seemed to find a rhythm. Combined they chipped in 18 points between the pair who had been sitting on the sidelines over the past two weeks. Once again the team showed grit as they played behind and then came back, which has become the pattern in the past four games. It is a good sign that the team can come back and can play without falling apart when they are behind. Do they need to finish stronger? Of course – if they didn’t they would have had the win.
Perhaps more troubling is the “why” the team has been starting so slow. Coach Calipari is aware of the potential problem. “I may switch around who I am starting just to change it. We’ll see…”
You have to believe that this is going to be an emphasis for the team in the next few weeks as the tournament approaches. You have to be able to start stronger. Tshiebwe put it his way, “I think we could start like how we finish…”
The one thing that became obvious against Arkansas, but also over the past few weeks is that Kentucky is best when they are playing fast. Missing their two point guards certainly didn’t help, but when they get back into play mode, this area should improve. Getting up and down the court after every possession not only wears the other team down but offers back some exciting fast break opportunities that Kentucky will take advantage of.
The second thing that became obvious was the need to play and additional 1 ½ feet on defense. When you have another team that is simply shooting the lights down of the arena roof, you have to slide quicker, add more pressure and get closer to the man handling the ball or setting up to shoot.
Most fans know it is tough on the road in the SEC. The conference is so strong and the competition against UK is always intense – but none of that is a surprise. The tools are all there, as Cal reminds us so often – “these kids are not machines” that will always make the best choices. Still, learn the lessons of Arkansas and then move on – there are more challenges waiting…