At the end of his team’s 61-59 home loss to Tennessee on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari began his news conference with an apology.
He repeatedly blamed himself for squandering a chance at victory by not calling timeout to set up a play with the Wildcats trailing the 15th-ranked Vols by a point and less than 20 seconds remaining.
Calipari usually doesn’t take timeout in that scenario because he prefers to have his team attack a defense that’s not set, but he admitted this year’s freshman-laden roster has not earned such trust. Freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dribbled into heavy traffic, Jordan Bowen poked the ball away and Admiral Schofield all but clinched a Tennessee victory with a breakaway dunk.
“This one’s on me,” Calipari said without prompting at the start of his news conference.
“The chance we had to win the game fell to me and I let it go,” he mentioned later.
Then to further drive home his point before he exited the podium, Calipari concluded, “That game was in my hands to do something with and I dropped the ball.”
Calipari is probably right that a timeout to draw up a play would have given Kentucky a better chance to win, but that’s not why the ninth-year coach seized upon every chance to fall on his sword. This was Calipari’s attempt to shift the narrative away from his team’s struggles and spare his youthful roster from a deluge of confidence-sapping criticism.
For months, we’ve heard that Kentucky is a work in progress, that the Wildcats have a high ceiling, that their best basketball is still ahead of them. Twenty-four games into an unusually rocky season, it’s time to acknowledge that we now have a pretty good handle on what this team is.
At 17-7 overall, 6-5 in a strong SEC and 29th in the KenPom rankings, Kentucky is nowhere near as good this season as it typically is under Calipari. The Wildcats have produced some nice stretches against Louisville and West Virginia, but they’re very much the epitome of an above-average power-conference team, one good enough to make the NCAA tournament but unlikely to stick around very long.
In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t be that big a surprise that Kentucky is in this position. The Wildcats lost six of their seven leading scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team and replaced them with a freshman class that, while talented, is nowhere near as star-laden as usual.
While Kentucky’s effort on defense and dominance on the offensive glass are reminiscent of previous Calipari teams, this is easily the worst offense of his nine-year tenure. Not only do the Wildcats miss too many open jumpers, turn the ball over too often and make the extra pass too infrequently, they also don’t have a star they can trust to score late in close games as neither Hamidou Diallo nor Kevin Knox have proven worthy of such a role.
Filling that role instead is the rapidly improving Gilgeous-Alexander, an afterthought in Kentucky’s 2017 recruiting haul who actually began this season coming off the bench. He is an excellent defender with offensive upside, but he is probably being asked to do too much.
That was apparent in the final minute Tuesday night when Kentucky had nowhere else to turn besides asking Gilgeous-Alexander to break down his man off the bounce. He turned the ball over twice, the first time leading to a go-ahead 3-pointer by Tennessee’s Lamonte Turner and the second paving the way for Schofield’s game-sealing dunk.
There’s no shame in a narrow home loss to a Tennessee team now alone in second place in the SEC, but Kentucky may soon rue this missed opportunity. The Wildcats’ next two games are on the road at talent-laden Texas A&M and first-place Auburn. They also still have challenging road games left against Florida and Arkansas.
Perhaps it was with that daunting finishing stretch in mind that Calipari kept trying to build his young team up during his postgame news conference instead of tearing them down.
“We’re on the right track now,” he insisted. “If this is who we are, I’m feeling good.”
This indeed is who Kentucky is, a good team but not a special one, a team that consistently plays hard but doesn’t consistently play well.
Compared to Calipari’s best teams, these Wildcats don’t measure up.
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