By LARRY VAUGHT
With Kentucky fans reeling more from UK’s consecutive losses than the players seemed to be after Saturday’s loss at South Carolina, it’s easy to wonder what is going to happen the next few weeks.
Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison insisted the Cats could still write a “great story” if they would just play the way they know they can — something they have not done in most big games and why they have eight losses already, including five in Southeastern Conference play.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was ejected midway of the second half of Saturday’s loss after getting his second technical foul and it was obvious way before then that he was frustrated with more than the officiating. His sideline antics and facial expressions — and not just in this game — made it clear UK’s lack of focus, emotion, intensity, defense, offensive execution and more were bothering him.
Has he lost control of this team? Only Calipari and his players can answer that.
Has this team been a disappointment? Absolutely, and both Calipari and his players should agree with that.
Has UK been the nation’s most disappointing team the last two years? One certainly could make that case after the NIT flame-out last year following Nerlens’ Noel injury and the expectations on this team with one of the nation’s all-time best recruiting classes and No. 1 preseason ranking.
Last year the Cats had no hopes by mid-February of being a NCAA title contender. This year they did — or at least they did until the losses to Arkansas and South Carolina exposed many, many issues. But guess what? The Wildcats were 11-5 in SEC play at this time a year ago, the same mark this team has.
So what is going on?
The players have sensed Calipari’s frustration, and even understand it when he is screaming at them. Or freshman James Young says they do.
“It was just him coaching. He was just trying to talk to us,” Young said Saturday. “We just weren’t listening sometimes, so he had to scream a little bit just to make us listen. We’ve just got to start listening when he says something the first time and just keep executing.”
Start listening? It’s the first of March, less than three weeks to NCAA Tournament time, and his team has not learned to listen. Admire Young’s honesty, but let that help explain Calipari’s frustration and perhaps show that he never had control of this team.
Should Calipari have to be screaming at players this late in the season?
“Definitely not. It’s just, I guess, we lose focus, like I’ve been saying the whole season. Concentration,” Young said.
Lack of concentration? Again, that’s a pretty important ingredient for winning teams. And it’s not just Young. He could well have been speaking for almost every teammate because the majority of the players have had the same issue.
Even Calipari’s ejection didn’t seem to bother — or inspire — the Wildcats even though they scored 28 points in 10 1/2 minutes after he was booted compared to 39 points in the first 29 1/2 minutes of play.
“It was just another obstacle that we had to overcome and we just — I mean, it was a tough game and it was just an obstacle that we just huddled and said, ‘We just gotta do what we need to do to get back in this game,’” freshman Aaron Harrison said.
Kentucky did get back in the game, but defensive and rebounding breakdowns enabled South Carolina to win. But it was UK’s poor shooting — the Cats had one 12 1/2 minute stretch without a made field goal and another stretch of almost five minutes without a basket — that doomed UK.
It was UK’s third straight game struggling to make shots.
“Sure it’s an issue if you don’t make shots,” UK assistant John Robic said. “I mean, the reason … We weren’t going to get any perimeter shots in the first half. We couldn’t get open. We were starting our offense near half court. They went zone, and we did a great job driving the ball and knocked down some 3’s in the second half and made a game of it.”
Robic also ruled out any lingering impact from the Arkansas loss as impacting the Cats at South Carolina.
“No. That was addressed Friday. We had a good practice Friday and went at it today,” Robic said after the loss. “Sort of a good thing sometimes when you have a tough game at home and you can redeem yourself hopefully. Obviously we didn’t today, but wasn’t a whole lot of time to dwell on it.”
But the players do dwell on missed shots — and they have had a lot to dwell on in recent games.
“I don’t think it affects it as much. Probably put our heads down a couple times, but we just tried to keep going play to play, just try to go to the next play like Coach says. Just, ‘Next,’ and try not to let shots affect us and just get back on D (defense),” Young said.
But something obviously keeps affecting this team that has gone from a team many were predicting no one would want to play in March to a team no one now might mind playing in March.