The Kentucky Wildcats' 2013-14 season is at a defining moment.
After losing to Arkansas and South Carolina, head coach John Calipari and his young squad are faced with a challenging next couple of weeks.
Either they will use these upsetting losses as a wake-up call, or they will watch as what was supposed to be a magical moment in Big Blue Nation history quickly fall apart.
Let's be honest. The Cats are not having a terrible year. A 21-8 record would be an accomplishment for a majority of college hoops programs.
But life is different in Lexington. What is considered success on most campuses does not cut it at Kentucky.
Long before this team of multiple McDonald's All-Americans took the court for their first game in November, sky-high expectations were being pronounced. After Calipari brought in the top high school prospect in four of five positions, the Cats looked unstoppable.
Before the season began, USA Today's Kyle Tucker quoted Dick Vitale, who said: "Anything less (than a national championship) for this team would be a huge disappointment."
There is little doubt that Calipari's roster has the talent to play with any opponent in the nation. However, this collection of gifted players has yet to join together to become the dominant force that many anticipated.
What steps do the Cats need to take to get on track before March Madness begins in a few weeks?
Take Better Care of the Ball
Teams make it hard on themselves to win if they have more turnovers than assists. This is a frustrating reality for this UK team.
The Wildcats, in their first 29 games, have 350 turnovers and 336 assists (0.94 assist-to-turnover ratio; No. 234 in the nation). Iowa State is No. 1 in the nation in this category. The Cyclones committed 288 turnovers and handed out 521 assists (1.81 A/TO; h/t Statsheet.com).
In Kentucky's eight losses, the Wildcats committed 31 more turnovers (114) than they dished out assists (83).
For all of Andrew Harrison's upside, the freshman point guard is not a rock-solid playmaker. He averages 3.5 assists and 2.5 turnovers per game.
To compare, here is how some of the nation's top point guards are doing so far in 2013-14:
|Andrew Harrison (Kentucky)||Tyler Ennis (Syracuse)||Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State)||T.J. McConnell (Arizona)|
Because Harrison has not been able to effectively take charge of Kentucky's attack, the Wildcats have been far less productive than they should be.
Other young Wildcats are struggling with the ball, too.
As a team, the Cats are losing the turnover margin battle. Kentucky has 30 more turnovers than its opponents (No. 255 in the nation).
All of the star power on this roster can not overcome the problem caused by forfeiting scoring opportunities by giving the ball away in close games.
Knock Down More of Their Freebies
One of the trademarks of Calipari-coached teams is aggressively taking the ball to the hole. Not only do they get a lot of close looks at the basket, but they also draw a ton of fouls and regularly head to the stripe.
Very few teams go to the free-throw line as much as Kentucky. So far this season, the Cats are averaging 30.5 free-throw attempts per game (No. 2 in the nation).
Unfortunately, UK is only hitting 68.6 percent of its freebies (No. 211 in the nation). This run-of-the-mill rate is causing Kentucky problems.
The Wildcats lost two games to Arkansas by a total of six points. In those two frustrating losses, they missed 24 free throws.
Seven of the Wildcats' eight losses have come by five points or less. In those eight losses, they missed a total of 87 free throws. Does anyone think Cal's crew would like to be able to go back and shoot a few of those again? Me too.
The Wildcats have a pair of regular-season games (one at Florida) before they head to Atlanta for the SEC tournament.
Putting up some extra free throws during and after upcoming practices may be the difference between winning and losing down-to-the-wire games at the Georgia Dome or during March Madness.
Time for Some Soul-Searching
Before the Wildcats work on taking care of the ball better or hitting free throws, they need to take a serious look at their effort and energy. Their drive and determination. Their core and their character.
These are some of the few aspects the players control during the course of a game.
At times, in the past several contests, the Cats have looked listless and lethargic. Because of this, they have fallen behind or lost leads.
Regardless of the talent and depth on this roster, they will struggle until each player decides that he is going to play hard from start to finish in every game.
After the South Carolina loss on Saturday, Vitale tweeted:
Time 4 Cats players to realize how special that jersey they wear is-represents greatness! Cats need PRIDE/PASSION! http://t.co/VMDLBzRgk2— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) March 2, 2014
Though Calipari is a fantastic motivator, the Wildcats need more than a pep talk.
The players need to set aside everything that would distract them or hinder them from leaving it all on the court.
The final chapter of Kentucky's season has not yet been written.
Starting with their final home game against Alabama, the Wildcats can pull together and play like the elite level team that they are supposed to be.
Or they can stagger through the rest of their schedule, the conference tournament and March Madness, falling significantly short of where they could have been.
How they perform from this point forward is one of the most intriguing storylines to watch as we cross over into college hoops crunch time