Kentucky Basketball: Why These 'Cats Won't Make the NCAA Tournament
It is hard to believe that the 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats were once the No. 3 team in the country. With a loss to Texas A&M at home on Jan. 12, the thought of missing the NCAA tournament seems plausible.
The Wildcats that won by two at Vanderbilt and lost by 12 to Texas A&M will not make the NCAA tournament.
We thought it was a given that the Wildcats would improve as the season moved on. Gains in experience, trust and conditioning were all expected to translate to wins in SEC play.
And, against Louisville, it seemed like Kentucky was showing those signs of improvement. It was a resilient effort, and, despite the loss, was one of the better games Kentucky played on the year. Losing by three to a national championship contender on the road was nothing to be ashamed of.
But losing to Texas A&M erased any thought that these young Wildcats have turned the corner. They haven't.
And if they don't, they will not be making the NCAA tournament.
Statistics via ESPN.com.
Lack of a High-Post Threat
Kentucky plays poorly against zone.
Evident in Vanderbilt's second-half comeback on Jan. 10, Kentucky has no weapons to defeat a zone.
Zones, particularly 2-3 zones, force the Wildcats to the outside. Penetration, a strong point of the Kentucky offense, is negated.
Open shots from outside are frequently available, but with few threats beyond the arc, Kentucky must resort to different means to defeat a zone.
One soft spot of a 2-3 zone is right at the free-throw line. But the Wildcats do not have a player who has the skills to make for a successful high-post threat.
Kyle Wiltjer lacks the toughness to stand strong in the lane. Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein don't have the shooting ability to be a threat from 15 feet.
This problem is not critical to the Wildcats' success, particularly because there are other ways to defeat a zone. But having no mid-range threat is detrimental to Kentucky's success.
Lack of Accountability
Players need to start taking responsibility for Kentucky's poor play.
Some of the blame can be placed on John Calipari, sure, but these players are talented. They have the skill to hang with any team in the country (see: Louisville).
But that skill doesn't always show on the court, and there is only so much a coach can do to prepare his team.
In the end, the players have to perform. There's no doubt that the Wildcats have more talent than Texas A&M or Vanderbilt, but that was not evident against either team.
As Nerlens Noel told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal:
Nerlens Noel: "There’s a time that us as players gotta start taking the responsibility. I feel that time is now."
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) January 13, 2013
Excuses will run dry at some point. Players need to be accountable.
No Killer Instinct
I wrote about this topic after Kentucky played Vanderbilt, and much of my analysis remains the same.
Against Vanderbilt, Kentucky was up 14 points with 11:44 to play. Vanderbilt took the lead five minutes later.
Kentucky and Texas A&M were tied at 63 with 4:33 to play. We all know how that game ended—the Aggies went on a 20-8 run to end the game.
To make matters worse, Kentucky held momentum at both of those points in each game. Vanderbilt was finished. A&M could not stop the Kentucky offense.
But, for whatever reason, Kentucky fails to put its foot down and take control of the game.
Is it a lack of experience in tense in-game situations? Is it a failure of the leaders on the team to step up in those moments?
Or is it a combination of the two?
This problem is vital to the success of this team.
Closing out games on the road and putting teams away at home (despite not playing quality basketball for most of the game) is a much-needed feature for any team that hopes to be dancing in March.
Right now, this Kentucky team doesn't have "it."