No. 1 Kentucky far from flawless
Kentucky keeps saying all the right things.
If you believe what the top-ranked Wildcats claim, they are just fine after a muted 74-71 victory Saturday against gimmicky fourth-seeded Florida in a semifinal of the SEC tournament.
Never mind that this Kentucky team had to rally Friday to gut out an unimpressive nine-point victory against fading LSU, which isn’t even a lock for an NIT bid.
“We ain’t trying to blow every team out,” said guard Doron Lamb, who had a team-high 16 points Saturday. “We just want to win games no matter how much we win by.”
That sounds fine and all, but it doesn’t mask the obvious: Kentucky is struggling.
So much that if you have watched the Wildcats this week, you have one question: Is this team really the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament?
The answer in another diluted college basketball season is yes, but you would never know it based on how Kentucky has played this week. It is a shadow of the team that until recently had been beating up opponents like a bouncer does drunks on Bourbon Street.
Point out all you want that Kentucky (32-1) has yet to lose a game in its conference tournament, unlike Syracuse and Kansas, but that’s hardly a fair argument with those teams having other legitimate NCAA title contenders in their league.
In the SEC, it’s Kentucky and … no one else. The league will likely have five teams make the NCAA tournament, but the biggest challenge it provided the Wildcats in the regular season was having them pick the final score.
But during the SEC tournament, they have been just fortunate to escape with wins. For the second consecutive game, they only led by a single point at halftime Saturday.
In fact, they trailed Florida for all but the final 13.1 seconds of the first half because they let the Gators do what they are known for — bomb away from 3-point range.
But behind sophomore forward Terrence Jones, the Wildcats briefly looked like their old selves with run in the second half, a 14-0 spurt, to take a nine-point lead with less than seven minutes left, only to see it nearly evaporate late.
“Normally, we put people away,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Calipari, of course, has been doing his best to put a positive spin on his young team’s slump this week. He’s done so by insinuating that Florida (23-10) and LSU (18-14) played their best games of the season against his Wildcats.
After Saturday’s triumph, Calipari even went as far as to downplay the significance of winning the SEC tournament. He declared himself not a fan of conference tournaments.
It was almost as if he were trying to preemptively do damage control in the event of a loss Sunday in the championship game against third-seeded Vanderbilt, which has played the Wildcats as well as any other team in the SEC.
But what Calipari isn’t saying is that his team’s flaws have been exposed during this listless tournament that’s practically being played at Rupp Arena South, with so many Big Blue Nation fans.
Not that we already didn’t know that Calipari has no X's and O's answers when teams goes into zombie mode for long stretches, or that the Wildcats offense has a tendency to become stagnant at times.
But in both games this week, we have seen a blueprint start to emerge for how to beat Kentucky. Speed up the game to attack the Wildcats’ porous transition defense and be physical, as in push them around like a grocery cart.
Opponents have also started to give credence to Kentucky being beatable. A day after LSU guard Andre Stringer questioned Kentucky’s on-ball defense, Florida center Patric Young called out the Wildcats’ conditioning, a factor for a team with a rotation of only seven players.
“We don’t think they’re in the best of shape,” Young said.
Yet no matter how Calipari tries to spin it, the numbers back up his team’s recent struggles. In three regular-season games, it had beaten LSU and Florida by at least 15 points.
The Wildcats haven’t even been close to that dominant this tournament, nor have they had that moment that leaves you awestruck and wondering if you are watching a team that will cut the nets down in April.
At a time of year when the Wildcats should be peaking for an NCAA tournament run, they actually seem to be regressing. This looks to be the latest chapter of Calipari underachieving with superior talent.
But unlike his coach, this is the first time freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has experienced it. He is perplexed by opponents staying in games longer and his team’s shrinking margin of victory.
When asked why, he paused before answering, “I don’t know.”
Neither does Kentucky, no matter what it keeps saying.