The Kentucky Wildcats are loaded with talent and capable of beating any team in the country but can't seem to beat ranked opponents early on in the season. Just consider them the anti-North Carolina.
Any dreams of an undefeated team from the beginning of the season not only seem delusional but are being mocked now by the shirts sold on clearance racks, as Tim Sullivan of the Courier-Journal pointed out:
Now that they have taken a few lumps—three already through 11 games—here is a breakdown of what the Wildcats need to do in order to turn their season around.
Playing as a Team
This is a saying passed around a lot in sports, but it's never been more perfect than for this Wildcats team. Sometimes the biggest problem with putting together a class full of the top prospects is that everyone wants to shine.
The key to John Calipari's 2012 squad that won an NCAA title was that the great players played their roles and didn't try to outdo one another. This season, one year removed from being bounced in the first round of the NIT Tournament, the Wildcats are struggling to play as a team again.
When asked about whether or not the team was playing selfish basketball, Andrew Harrison told the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker, "It's not selfishness, it's wanting yourself to be good." Here's video of the interview:
Not trying to take anything away from his statement, but doesn't that sound pretty selfish? Playing as a team, nearly by definition, is wanting the team to do well, not yourself. Learning the difference between the two is crucial for this team.
While Harrison might not believe he or his teammates are playing selfishly, Calipari certainly seemed to think so following the loss to UNC. Calipari told Gary Parrish of CBS Sports what he thought of his team's performance against the Tar Heels:
We're not a good team because our emotion is all based on our individual play instead of our team play [...] If you wanna keep losing, keep acting this way
Whether or not the team is playing for the individual performance or trying to win for Kentucky, the style of play needs to change in order to find success and find themselves playing meaningful basketball in March.
In eight games against unranked teams, Kentucky is undefeated and averaging 84 points per game while only allowing opponents to score 61.1. In their three losses, the Wildcats have scored just 71 points and allowed 75.7.
While the first set of numbers don't say much about how well the Wildcats are playing because those numbers came against the likes of Northern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan, the second set shows that they have been playing close games in their losses.
But close losses don't turn into an NCAA Tournament bid.
The 82-77 loss against North Carolina was somewhat of a microcosm of how Kentucky's season has gone thus far. The Wildcats came out of the half and led, 46-44, at the 14-minute mark and appeared to be on their way to a road win.
But then they wilted down the stretch and allowed the Tar Heels to slowly but surely pull away thanks to 21 points from Marcus Paige in the second half. Following the game in Chapel Hill, James Young summed up the team's performance for Parrish:
We were playing well. Then we stopped playing.
Outside of simply not playing well, the Wildcats also finished with 30 fouls in the game. To put that in perspective, they hadn't had that many fouls in nearly five years. In fact, the last time they had 30 or more fouls came against Louisville (31) on Jan. 5, 2008 before Calipari arrived.
That high amount of fouls allowed North Carolina to have over twice as many free-throw attempts than any of Kentucky's opponents have averaged this season.
Plain and simple, this team needs to find ways to play well down the stretch and play through adversity. If Kentucky can start putting together better performances in the clutch, this will be a team that has the talent to contend in the NCAA Tournament.
And, for now, the Wildcats are still a tournament team. But they needs to start proving it.