After a 26-point point embarrassment on Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to Rupp Arena as a 20-points favorite to play the South Carolina Gamecocks, in what was expected to be a “pick-me-up” game.
However, that was far from the case.
The start of the game felt like a resumption of the Alabama game as South Carolina built a 13-2 lead by the first media timeout. The lack of fight and effort was met with a lot of fan displeasure, as a noticeable amount of boos rang through the crowd.
As the half progressed, Kentucky showed some life on the offensive end, led by Oscar Tshiebwe and Antonio Reeves, but failed to get consecutive stops on defense. As a result, the deficit was never really in danger and South Carolina entered the half with a 42-32 lead.
To start the second half, the Gamecocks picked up right where they left off and extended the lead to twelve with 13 minutes to go. As things started to look their bleakest, Kentucky fought back to cut the lead to just three. South Carolina answered with an 8-0 run to extend the lead back to double digits.
In a last-ditch effort, the Wildcats showed their most fight of the game and cut the lead to one after a CJ Fredrick three. However, it was all too late and Kentucky suffered one of the worst losses in recent memory, 71-68.
What went wrong?
Entering Tuesday night’s game, South Carolina came in ranked 251st in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings and 311th in points per game (64.3 ppg). Without that background and their burgundy jerseys, you would have thought they were the Golden State Warriors.
On the game, South Carolina was 11-19 (57.9%) from three, including Meechie Johnson who hit six threes of his own. This mark was the Gamecock’s best percentage from three on the season, beating their second-best mark by more than 10 percent (45.5%).
This isn’t a testament to an improving South Carolina offense, but a testament to Kentucky’s defensive struggles. Against power five opponents, the Wildcats are allowing more than 75 points per game and there appears to be little hope that will improve.
Under John Calipari, Kentucky has consistently been a good rebounding team, and even more so with Oscar Tshiebwe on the roster. However, the Wildcats were on the losing end of the rebounding battle on Tuesday.
It is cliché, but South Carolina was simply the tougher team, and it showed as they out-rebounded the Wildcats 32-28. Of those rebounds, fifteen came on the offensive end which led to 21 second-chance points, putting a stop to any Kentucky run.
Where does Kentucky go from here?
Kentucky needed to win, and win big to regain any sense of optimism. Instead, they lost by three to a South Carolina team that is arguably the worst in the SEC.
While a 26-point loss at Alabama was embarrassing, this game feels like rock bottom of the John Calipari era. It’s January, halfway through the season, and this team has only regressed. No longer will fans be patient when there is little hope given.
With fifteen regular season SEC games remaining, things could get even worse, and there are still no answers.