In this crazy, nutty, inexplicable college basketball season, it had seemed that some vestiges of normalcy were returning to the landscape. One of them was that Kansas had established itself as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
By Matt Zemek
Another was that the Kentucky Wildcats had won the SEC championship, were winning a pile of games, and had become – seemingly – yet another John Calipari-coached team which hit its stride in late February and was ready for March.
Nope. This season’s craziness was not – and is not – done.
Kentucky didn’t merely lose at home to a bad Tennessee team on Senior Night in Rupp Arena, an unthinkable event in light of recent weeks; Kentucky lost by blowing a 17-point lead. What the heck happened? John Calipari plainly said after the loss that his team didn’t play physical basketball and was unprepared to play a rugged game. Kentucky had been answering opponents’ challenges, and the Wildcats had been prepared for every test at the defensive end of the floor in recent weeks, shown in particular by a strong defensive effort against Auburn this past Saturday. Yet, in the second half against Tennessee, for whatever reason, every good thing UK had been doing on defense in February evaporated in early March.
John Fulkerson – JOHN FULKERSON, who is not an elite scorer by any stretch! – scored 27 against Kentucky, one of the most improbable single-game point totals by any player in college basketball this season. Yet, it was more than Fulkerson. Three different Tennessee starters hit at least five field goals AND shot over 55 percent. That is nuts… and also quite unacceptable.
As Kentucky prepares for Florida, the game keys don’t have to be very complicated:
1 – Compete
Kentucky didn’t compete late versus Tennessee. Way too many uncontested shots, way too little fire in the belly, way too much internal criticism of teammates instead of banding together and being positive. Kentucky needs to get its mind right and refocus against Florida, playing purposeful defense and enjoying competition. That’s it. Just do that, and see where it all goes. It should end well if the Cats regain this mentality.
2 – Richards and Hagans playing well
Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans had some sharp interactions late in the Tennessee game, when everything slid off the rails. This is not cause for concern, but it does mean that after a bad game with bad moments and unwelcome emotional outpourings, the players involved in those outpourings need to make sure they come out to the court in their next game and restore order. If Richards and Hagans don’t perform well against Florida, THEN it might be time to be concerned heading into the SEC Tournament.
3 – Cohesion
Kentucky doesn’t have extraordinary players. It is worth remembering that. Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley are very good players, but not superstars. Kentucky needs eight players in its rotation, five when on the floor, to work together, especially on defense. UK might have relaxed after winning the SEC title. The Tennessee loss could still become a good moment for this team if it gets the Wildcats to remember that they have to play integrated basketball in order to make the Final Four. Tennessee didn’t knock UK out of the NCAA Tournament. If the Vols made Kentucky a more vigilant and unified team heading into single-elimination tournaments, this could still become a blessing in disguise.