John Calipari (Vicky Graff Photo)
By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball team is now out of KenPom’s Top 30 for the first time since the ill-fated 2013 NIT season. Their current overall record is 14-5 and 4-3 in the SEC. They have not beaten a Top 25 team all year and are 2-2 against KenPom Top 50 teams. They also have two losses against KenPom sub-50 teams. None of the above facts paints a very rosy picture of the season so far for a team that started the season rated No. 5. So what happened?
This current recruiting class was ranked No.2 in the country by 247 Sports when they arrived on campus in 2017. Before the season even started two key players – Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker – went down with injuries. Vanderbilt is just now working his way back into the lineup. It appears that Baker will not make it back at all for the 2017-2018 season.
Along with being short-handed on the bench Calipari has been short-changed in the execution department. This team does not seem to display the needed knowledge or urgency on defense required to stop teams from making repeated straight line drives to the basket for layups. They are frequently out of position in their man-to-man defense with little communication between players. Defensive players frequently don’t rotate to cut off the ball when an offensive player on the opposing team beats his defender off the dribble. These defensive breakdowns allow opposing teams either layups, lobs for dunks or open three-point shots on the perimeter.
Because of the fundamental breakdowns on defense Coach Calipari has had to play more zone defense than at any previous time in his coaching career. His zone of preference appears to be a 2-3 zone. Unfortunately his defensive players – either through a lack of desire or knowledge – repeatedly don’t match up out of it and allow the ball to penetrate the perimeter of the zone into an unguarded opposing offensive player in the high post. Once that happens the opposing player is free to shoot a short jump shot, head fake and drive for a layup or play a high-low game by drawing the post defender to him which allows the offensive player to pass the ball to his low post team mate for a wide open layup or dunk.
With UK’s offense the reverse situation seems to exist. Because the UK point guards cannot consistently beat their defender off the dribble the entire “dribble-drive” offense breaks down. Teams in the SEC that are more physical than UK – which is most of them – have learned they can “body-up” on Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and deny straight line drives to the basket. If the point guard cannot beat his man off the dribble then the passing lanes to the interior UK post players do not open up. Generally when this happens UK players settle for jump shots on the perimeter. Not a good strategy for a team ranked No.202 in three-point shooting percentage.
This team has proven it is not an offensive juggernaut. If they win games it will be from playing lock-down defense, scrambling for loose balls and taking advantage of second chance points on offensive rebounds. None of which they do very well right now. All of those elements of the game require effort. Forty-minutes of continuous effort.
All in all the results so far have been surprising but probably shouldn’t be. Most fans and analysts have become used to John Calipari pulling a rabbit out of his hat each season. He loses five players to the NBA and plugs in five more. The winning always continues. This year might be different.
With no sure-fire top 10 NBA draft picks on the roster and no upper class players to lean on this team struggles down the stretch of most games. Some games they have been able to overcome the lack of execution but against the better teams they have played this season it becomes painfully obvious that they don’t have the experience, effort or sheer talent to consistently make winning plays at the end of close games.
It appears that this is the year the “chickens will come home to roost” on the one-and-done philosophy of recruiting. Each season at UK the experience pool has continued to be depleted until this year there are no upperclassmen either playing on the floor or sitting on the bench. In college basketball experience is big equalizer. That’s how teams like Connecticut have been able to win two championships to UK’s one over the past decade. That’s how Villanova recently has been in a contender’s position each year even without the number one or two recruiting class.
After Saturday’s loss at Rupp Arena – the first home SEC loss since 2014 – Coach Calipari said this, “I know there are some people out there that will be panicked. … Be panicked. I’m glad I’m not sitting with you. I’m fine.” UK still has road games against No. 6 West Virginia, Missouri, Texas A&M, No.17 Auburn, Arkansas and Florida along with home games against No. 21 Tennessee along with Missouri and Alabama. No reason to panic but plenty of reasons to be concerned. With the season halfway complete and UK still struggling to beat the better teams in the SEC one would have to think that this could be a team that loses ten or more games this season. No NCAA Championship team in the last ten years has lost more than nine games in a season. The average number of losses has been five.
Knowing that based on the struggles so far most fans seem to have lowered their expectations for this team to somewhere between merely making the tournament field and getting to the Final Four it seems interesting that Coach Calipari feels fine about his current team. He said this after the Florida loss, “The ability to pass the ball to one another, the ability to really scramble defensively and do some good things, we’re going to be fine. I was worried after South Carolina now. I’m not worried after this. We’ll be fine. I was worried after Vanderbilt to be honest with you, and we won that game. They do this and they stay this course and this is who we are, we’ll be fine.”
And they may be fine by the end of the season but even with John Calipari being the master magician that he is it appears that pulling a rabbit out of his hat this year will take a lot more execution and effort than we are seeing right now.