On December 18th, 2021 the Kentucky Wildcats took on the North Carolina Tar Heels and won in a 98-69 rout.
A little over a month later, on January 29th, 2022, Kentucky took on the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse and won in a lopsided 80-62 victory.
On April 4th, Kansas will take on North Carolina for the National Championship, while Kentucky has been sitting in Lexington since being upset in the first round by Saint Peter’s.
After beating these teams by a combined 47 points, what exactly happened?
The most obvious thing to point to that hurt Kentucky is injuries. Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington were both critical players, and they suffered injuries that caused them to miss game(s) towards the end of the season.
One can argue that the most significant injury was when Washington sprained his ankle for a second time on February 12th (I will mention this date a lot) against Florida.
Following that game, TyTy just never seemed to return to 100%, averaging 11.6 points but on an inefficient 35.6% clip from the field and 36% clip from three.
As a team, that date seems to point to where the team changed and could never readjust to form.
In their last nine games following Florida, Kentucky finished 5-4 and never returned to form.
As great as Grady was at times this season, he was just as bad in the last five games. The best shooter in the SEC went North Pole-type cold, going 5/22 (22.7%) from three in his last five games.
Outside of his poor shooting, the veteran wasn’t providing anything else on offense or defense. In the last five games, of those with 10+ minutes per game, Grady was ranked as Kentucky’s worst defender with a 112.6 defensive rating and had the team’s worst player efficiency rating at 9.1 (Real GM).
That’s not to say Grady did not contribute to this team. Despite the finish to the season, Grady still finished as the 5th best three-point shooter in school history by percentage (Big Blue History).
However, his play at the end of the season is something we should try to forget and not remember him by.
Offense Became Less Efficient
Prior to the season, Calipari knew he had to bring in shooters (and makers) and he did. Kellan Grady, CJ Frederick, Dontaie Allen, and TyTy Washington were seen as the best shooters on paper, and outside of Frederick, who missed the season due to injury, the rest lived up to those expectations.
As a team, Kentucky shot 35.1% from three up to February 12th, which would have ranked top five in the Calipari Era and top 100 in the NCAA this season. However, after that dreadful day, the Cats plummeted to 29.7% in their last five games, which would rank as the worst shooting team in the Calipari era.
Without the shooting ability to spread out the floor, Oscar was still able to produce, but it congested the spacing, limited other players, and the offense as a whole was never as effective.
Towards the end of the season, you could really see this team’s need for a stretch four. While Toppin and Brooks could make the mid-range jumper, they were not nearly as consistent as they needed to be to spread the floor. In my opinion, that is a definite need for Calipari to fill this offseason.
Kentucky let Saint Peter’s, the 232nd ranked offensive, shoot over 50% from the field and three-point land (KenPom), but the defensive troubles started before that.
Prior to February 15th, Kentucky had only allowed 100 or more points per possession in six of their twenty-five games to that point. Following that point, they allowed 100 or more points per possession in eight of their final nine games, with the lone game under being the regular-season finale at Florida. (Bart Torvik)
In terms of overall defense, Kentucky was 35th in defensive efficiency (KenPom). However, just looking at their last 10 games, the Wildcats ranked 163rd in defensive efficiency (Bart Torvik). This was the worst of any top-12 seed.
However, an interesting note is that Duke ranked 158th in their last 10 in defensive efficiency.
Despite the promise Kentucky showed through the regular season, when the defense regressed and the team lost its shooting touch, the writing was on the wall for an early exit. With that said, seeing two teams that Kentucky absolutely handled earlier in the season, play for a championship, is pure frustration.