A solid 7-1 start for Kentucky basketball is hiding a major problem for the talent-rich Wildcats. A month into the season, John Calipari’s team is still coming out of the locker room flat and getting outplayed by subpar opponents in the first half.
A slim 39-35 halftime lead over Providence. A 35-32 halftime lead over Eastern Michigan. A 31-27 deficit to lowly Cleveland State at Rupp Arena.
None of those scores even resembles the final tally for three UK blowout wins, and all are reasons to be concerned about the Wildcats’ ability to start strong.
With a starting lineup featuring five freshmen—thanks to Marcus Lee’s jump-ball superiority—the ‘Cats have lacked focus and intensity off the opening tip. As Michigan State has already shown, that’s a combination that will turn into losses when Kentucky faces legitimate competition.
SEC play is approaching fast, and it’s time for the Wildcats to start playing like the conference favorites they are. It will only take a few straightforward changes to put Kentucky back on the right first-half track.
1. Box out
Kentucky is the fourth-best rebounding team in college basketball right now. It has no business getting outplayed on the defensive glass the way it has been in recent games.
Providence missed 26 shots in the first half against the ‘Cats, but nine of those went right back to the Friars on offensive rebounds. Cleveland State notched another nine offensive boards before halftime.
Some of these second-chance opportunities are an unavoidable consequence of Kentucky’s great shot-blocking. The more often Willie Cauley-Stein or Marcus Lee goes for a weak-side rejection, the more chances an opposing big man has to grab the resulting rebound.
However, effort is also a big factor in defensive rebounding, and that’s where Kentucky’s been lacking early on. As Providence’s Kadeem Batts proved with his seven offensive rebounds for the game, Kentucky can be out-worked on the boards.
That’s not acceptable, especially for a team with so much height and leaping ability.
If Calipari can find a way to light a fire under his team before halftime, it will go a long way toward solving this problem.
Failing that, putting a body on opposing rebounders is as basic a skill as they come, and focusing on that task will pay major dividends. This lesson applies especially to a group of wing players who have been too eager to leak out on fast breaks rather than make sure their team gets the ball.
2. Stop giving away possessions
Against Eastern Michigan, four different Wildcats turned the ball over in the first two and a half minutes of the game. For the season, Kentucky’s 13 turnovers per contest rank in the bottom half of all teams in Division I, hardly an appropriate place for a national title contender.
There’s nothing like an empty possession to energize an underdog. Every time Kentucky gives the ball back to a team it should be beating, it’s not just helping the other side on the scoreboard—it’s handing momentum to a team that’s already fired up by a shot at its biggest win of the season.
Occasionally, a steal by the opposing team is just a quality defensive play, but most of Kentucky’s turnovers are products of poor decision-making—Julius Randle trying to dribble through a double-team—or sloppy execution, especially the Wildcats’ enormous number of offensive fouls on moving picks.
The decision-making issues will improve with experience, but the lazy passes and illegal screens are mostly a matter of focus. Coach Cal needs to consider sitting his starters—yes, even Randle—for a couple of minutes if they’re making mistakes that should’ve been corrected in preseason practice.
3. Suffer an upset loss
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the lessons provided by Michigan State’s first-half thrashing of the ‘Cats have not sunk in. A probable explanation is that there’s no shame, even for Kentucky, in getting beaten by a team with the experience and talent of those Spartans.
Right now, shame may be exactly what the Wildcats need.
A loss to, say, Vanderbilt (Kentucky’s first SEC road game) would show the youngsters that they can’t always count on coming back for easy wins in the second half.
At this stage, Kentucky has two choices: it can learn to play hard and smart for 40 minutes, or it can lose to a massive underdog in the NCAA tournament. As much as Coach Cal would hate to see his team take a bad loss in the regular season, that’s a small price to pay if it teaches the youngsters to step onto the floor ready to compete every night—something they demonstrably haven’t learned through eight games.