Kentucky showed what it’s made of — both good and bad — in its loss to Kansas, but their overall performance made a positive statement.
CHICAGO—Despite the 89-84 loss to Kansas on Tuesday, it’s safe to say that Kentucky is leaving Chicago feeling more confident about where it stands nationally. It’s also safe to say the Wildcats are incredibly frustrated with the way they played.
“None of us are happy that we lost the game,” head coach John Calipari said. “I’m not happy.”
However, Calipari didn’t use the loss as an excuse to dump on his players. Instead, he pointed to his own late-game shortcomings before praising his squad’s overall performance.
“I’ve got work to do on how to finish games off and who needs to be in at the end of games,” he admitted. “But to be in this environment and for them to perform like they did, you couldn’t ask for much more.”
Kentucky shook off a slow start and built a 14-point lead in the second half, only to see it dwindle away down the stretch. The Jayhawks closed on an 11-1 run as the Wildcats went cold with questionable shot selection and turnovers.
The volatile nature of Tuesday’s game perfectly encapsulates the potential of this Wildcats team at this point. They’re extremely young — but also extremely talented, with as much projected NBA talent as anyone in the country. The challenge is to get them to produce consistently and efficiently.
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Freshmen arrive on the big stage
The stars of Calipari’s top-ranked recruiting class were in the backcourt, and those guards all showed flashes of what makes them special.
DJ Wagner was electric in transition. Justin Edwards, while struggling offensively, put forth an excellent defensive effort. Reed Sheppard had 13 points on just five shots, and he also came up with four steals. Rob Dillingham scored 16 points in the first half, 14 of which came in a scintillating three-and-a-half-minute stretch that gave Kentucky the lead.
Dillingham and Sheppard flipped the game in Kentucky’s favor when they came into the game. It’s a luxury to bring that kind of firepower off the bench, which helps make up for the Wildcats’ lack of traditional depth.
At their best, Kentucky looked like a team capable of winning a national championship. The Wildcats have been shorthanded to start the season given Aaron Bradshaw’s injury and questions about Zvonimir Ivisic’s eligibility. That lack of size has forced the Wildcats to play smaller lineups that space the floor in a 5-out offense, and that scheme looked unstoppable at times.
Kansas, one of the best defensive teams in the nation, had trouble defending Kentucky’s quickness. The Wildcats could get into the lane seemingly at will, which let them generate plenty of shots at the rim and find open shooters. They had 38 attempts from 3-point range, more than they had in any game last season. They made 12 of them, too, which is also more than they made in a single game last year.
That increased spacing, coupled with more perimeter threats, makes this Wildcats team as dynamic as they have been in recent years. That style — and the potential they showed — earned the Jayhawks’ respect.
“I think they’re super talented,” Kansas wing Kevin McCullar said postgame. “Their ability to get their shot off one-on-one is special. They’re young, but I think they’re going to figure it out.”
Kansas head coach Bill Self agreed.
“I like their team,” Self said. “To me, they’re a harder guard when Tre Mitchell is playing the 5. When they get their other bigs back, they’re going to be hard to deal with. Cal has a really good bunch.”
Shooting woes crop up late
Nevertheless, Kentucky still lost because of some negative tendencies and inexperience.
Wagner shot just 1-of-12 from the field, often forcing contested shots around the rim because he was pressing the issue. Antonio Reeves scored 24 points, but he shot 7-of-25 from the field — including a dismal 3-of-17 from downtown. The team shot just 9-of-21 on layups and only scored a single point in the final 3:12.
A number of Reeves’ misses came during that stretch, forcing contested 3s off the bounce. Kentucky’s execution dropped off and so did the attacks in transition, something the Cats did to perfection early in the game.
“We’re a young team,” Calipari said of those late-game miscues. “You’re out there with a bunch of young guys, and I’ve got to do a really good job of showing them how to finish games and who should be in at the end of games.”
Dillingham and Sheppard won’t always combine to shoot 10-of-17 from the field and 7-of-9 from deep. At the same time, Edwards, Reeves and Wagner likely won’t shoot a combined 8-of-43 from the field again, either.
Cats’ ceiling looks as high as any
This game was not about the result for Kentucky as much as it was about the potential. After all, it is November. Most teams — especially ones breaking in as many freshmen as the Wildcats are — can expect to get considerably better between now and the end of the season.
But the current version of Kentucky, the one without any frontcourt depth and with freshmen playing just the third game of their respective college careers, went toe-to-toe with a veteran-laden, top-ranked team.
“The end of the game, missing free throws and missing shots, we broke down,” Calipari admitted. “We have to get better at finishing. What I was proud of is how we fought. That’s a huge team, and we had to fight to survive.”
Fortunately for Calipari, he likes his guys in a fight.
“We want to win. We’ve got dawgs,” he said. “You can’t be young like we are and win with a group like that unless you’ve got dawgs.”
Even with obvious inefficiencies, youthful mistakes and a shorthanded frontcourt, Kentucky impressed on Tuesday. It’s enough to make you wonder just how good the Wildcats can be when they have their full complement of players and settle on some of the details. They are explosive, and they have multiple high-level scoring options, playmakers and guys who can create for themselves.
Coming into Tuesday, we knew who Kansas was, given all the experience on its roster. It’s why the Jayhawks are the No. 1 team in the country right now. But we did not know what this Kentucky team was. In a hard-fought loss, the Wildcats showed off their warts, but they also showed off a ceiling as high as any in the country.