Yes, Saturday’s loss to the Auburn Tigers was a gut punch for Kentucky basketball. It is not the kind of loss which is easy to shrug off, as though it’s no big deal or “just one game” in the midst of a much longer season. Let’s be honest about that.
By Matt Zemek
First and foremost, Kentucky was a game behind unbeaten LSU in the SEC race. Now it is two games back. Winning SEC championships is expected in Kentucky, because it SHOULD be expected. This is the standard the program should carry today.
When Billy Donovan had the Florida program rocking and rolling, it was a lot more realistic to expect to split SEC titles over four- or six-year periods instead of winning them all. The Gators were that good in their best years under Billy D. (We can see how good a coach Donovan is right now, taking an Oklahoma City squad which was expected to be a bottom-rung team and molding it into a playoff group.)
In the current iteration of the SEC, however, Kentucky ought to expect better.
LSU and Auburn are very good teams, don’t get me wrong, but they are not the juggernauts Billy Donovan had at Florida. The Gators’ best teams were heavyweight No. 1 seeds. LSU keeps winning close games under Will Wade; the Tigers were a 3 seed last year and barely escaped the second round of the NCAA Tournament before getting handled rather easily in the Sweet 16 by Michigan State.
Auburn made the Final Four last year, but as a No. 5 seed which got hot. Auburn was a No. 4 seed the previous season. Bruce Pearl’s team will probably be a 4 seed this year, no higher than a 3. The best non-Kentucky teams in SEC basketball right now are not bone-crushing, soul-stealing behemoths. If Kentucky really is KENTUCKY, it ought to be controlling the SEC.
It is clearly not.
Failing to avenge the Elite Eight loss to Auburn gives Kentucky the realization that Bruce Pearl has significantly changed the flow of the Auburn-Kentucky matchup. Auburn simply does not live in fear of Kentucky anymore. That’s a bad development.
Failing to beat Auburn also limits the number of quality wins UK can add before this season ends. Kentucky’s ceiling for NCAA Tournament seeding is probably a 3 seed, the same for Auburn and LSU. Kentucky is staring at a 4 seed in which it might have to play a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16. (John Calipari knows how to beat 1 seeds in the Sweet 16, see 2011, but that’s still not a preferred position.)
There is plenty to really hate about this loss. It ought to sting.
Yet, as bad as it should hurt, this loss is still an event Kentucky can turn into a positive in the next six weeks. Why? This is a loss which should get a team’s attention before the NCAA Tournament. This is the kind of loss a team can learn from, so that it doesn’t recur in March.
So many NCAA Tournament and Final Four dreams die when a team gets a bad whistle from the refs and fails to adjust to it or overcome it. The 29 fouls called on Kentucky against Auburn enabled the Tigers to shoot 44 free throws and make 33, gaining a 13-point edge over UK at the charity stripe, 33-20. That was the difference in the game.
Seeing how a bad whistle can affect an outcome should give this team a necessary splash of cold water before the home stretch.
The other big lesson of this game: When Nick Richards isn’t at his best, do his teammates have his back? Immanuel Quickly and Tyrese Maxey did, but did anyone else? Ashton Hagans still commits way too many turnovers. Nate Sestina’s presence as a valuable shooter off the bench was not in evidence against Auburn. E.J. Montgomery could not build off his performance versus Vanderbilt.
Kentucky needs more balance and more reliable every-night contributions. Otherwise, Richards will be forced to carry far too much of the workload. More players need to chip in on the days when Richards doesn’t have his best fastball.
The combination of foul trouble and a Nick Richards struggle-bus game was too much for Kentucky to overcome. Better, however, to have this kind of game occur now. If the Wildcats learn everything there is to be learned from this game, they might still be okay in the long run.