LEXINGTON, Ky. — Maybe the eventual good news for Kentucky is that fortunes seem to swing quickly and dramatically during this wild college basketball season, but right now, that’s the bad news. Two weeks ago, just about any hoops-viewing human in America decided the Wildcats were bona fide national championship contenders after they hung 105 points on Georgia and 7-foot-2 Croatian Zvonimir Ivisic delivered one of the most memorable debuts imaginable. John Calipari’s team was already loaded, and then that monster joined the party? Good luck, everybody. Anything seemed possible.
Well, anything but what actually followed.
Since that delirious night at Rupp Arena, Kentucky has lost three of its last four games and all of the early-season mystique that came with an unstoppable offense. Because that’s just not as sexy when you continue to defend like five matadors against seven bulls. Or when you lose consecutive home games for the first time — excluding the mostly fanless 2020-21 COVID-restricted season — in 15 years under Calipari. Or when you score 92 points at Texas A&M, 91 points against Florida and 92 points against Tennessee and lose all three of those games. Without serious improvement, the wet-toilet-paper approach to defense was always going to catch up to Kentucky, and now it has.
“I don’t know what it is right now,” sophomore Adou Thiero said, “but we’ve just got to find the fight in ourselves and stop letting teams just come in and do whatever they want.”
Only 14 days ago, these Wildcats were a popular pick to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015. Today? They’re 15-6 overall, 5-4 in the SEC, stuck in a sad, four-way tie for fifth place in their own league, three games back of the new power, Alabama, and one loss away from eighth place. These disastrous two weeks featured a beatdown at South Carolina, a blown four-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation against the Gators and, finally, an utter punking at the hands of the fifth-ranked Volunteers on Saturday night. That last one, a 103-92 loss in which UT led for all but 12 seconds, left Calipari doing damage control. He noted that starting point guard D.J. Wagner sat out a second straight game with a nagging high ankle sprain, which meant Kentucky still has not played a minute this season with all of its scholarship players available.
“You can’t listen to the negative stuff,” Calipari said. “We are still a good team, and now we have to get healthy and we have to get back on track, but there’s a lot of people that would like to have my team.”
The most cynical in the fan base, though, wonder whether some of those other people might do more with this same team. Depending on which projections you believe, there might be as many as seven NBA draft picks on the roster, after all. So just how much talent does one man need to be a top-four SEC team? To give up, say, less than 80 points?
“We are going to have to be a collective defensive team,” Calipari said. “If one guy stops playing, it’s going to hurt this group. We do it together, we can hold our own.”
Kentucky fans expect a bit more than that. They sold out Rupp, packed it to the rafters and roared for as long as it remained reasonable to keep believing Saturday night. They came hoping to see a legitimate championship contender, and they did, but that team celebrated, loudly and wildly, in the visitors locker room.
road w pic.twitter.com/PlAQGgqw7P
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) February 4, 2024
Fifth-ranked Tennessee leaned into a track meet and simply ran away from the Cats, once again exposing their inability — or is it unwillingness at this point? — to stop anybody. It was the most points UT has scored in a road game in 31 years.
Lately, it has become far too easy an excuse for Calipari to say that teams and individual players catch the hoopin’ holy ghost and go off, playing the game of their lives, when they get their chance against the “gold standard” of college basketball. But wouldn’t the gold standard stop them occasionally? Freshman guard Rob Dillingham, the microwave scorer who enjoyed his career night with 35 points on 14-of-20 shooting to (yet again) give UK a chance despite its defense, echoed that tired talking point Saturday.
Had Vols point guard Zakai Zeigler “ever had a 26-point, 13-assist game?” Dillingham wondered. “Everybody comes to play their best against us.”
It’s a chicken-or-egg question. Calipari said a series of mishaps defending out-of-bounds plays cost Kentucky a chance to come back — try as Dillingham might — from double-digit deficits in both halves Saturday. The thing is, that’s a common occurrence. The highest-percentage play in the entire sport right now might be a baseline out-of-bounds play against these Cats. They leave a man standing alone under the basket. They vacate a corner for a wide-open 3. Over and over and over. At some point, that’s not merely bad luck.
“We go over inbounds every time,” Dillingham said, “so we shouldn’t mess up on inbounds. We mess up anyway, even though we went over it six times. So it’s really an effort thing. If you want to, you’re going to remember it.”
And what about pride? When does getting lit up every night become an embarrassment?
“I don’t want to keep hearing the same (bad) thing about me, so I take pride in it,” Dillingham continued. “But I feel like our team should, and if we really want it, we will.”
Some of that might get better when Kentucky gets guys back — Wagner from injury, super senior Tre Mitchell from his miserable slump. Mitchell, the glue guy on a freshman-heavy team early this season, has made 5 of 23 shots over the last three games and Calipari eventually pulled the plug on him Saturday.
“We gotta get you back,” Calipari told him.
“We will sit down with him and figure it out.”
It seems overly simplistic, like saying the defense looks bad because other teams always play out of their minds against Kentucky, to suggest everything will improve when Wagner finally returns. Which will be “sooner than later,” Calipari said Saturday. But it’s also true that half the team’s losses, the three most disappointing defeats, have come with Wagner sidelined.
“We need him healthy. When he doesn’t play, we don’t win,” his coach said. “We can go crazy about this and that (but) let’s get our team together. We’ve still got good players.”
Calipari isn’t wrong about that, and a season — especially this one, when the AP top 10 features a revolving door — can flip fast. He should know that better than anyone now.
(Photo of Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler launching a 3-pointer during the first half against Kentucky: Jordan Prather / USA Today)