The upcoming Battle of the Blue Bloods turned a paler shade of blue this week.
Kansas fell to West Virginia. And then, immediately following on ESPN, Kentucky lost to Tennessee.
That may have a chilling effect on the national importance of Saturday’s game between Kansas and Kentucky (6 p.m. on ESPN), but it becomes all the more critical to both the immediate and longer-term prospects of the two blue-and-whites themselves. And since this website focuses on the local news, let’s take a look at what the loss to Tennessee meant and what the game against Kansas portends for the Wildcats.
Games against Tennessee — especially losses — always seem to result in an outsized reaction for Big Blue Nation. And basketball losses are especially irritating, perhaps because those are games Kentucky is supposed to win.
This most recent loss told me:
- Bam Adebayo can be everything that has been expected of him.
- Malik Monk’s scoring average doesn’t tell the entire story.
- Freshmen too often play like freshmen.
- Every Kentucky loss (and, let’s be honest, there have been only three of them) exposes the weaknesses of this team. Losses usually do that.
Adebayo is clearly moving beyond the one-dimensional catch-it-above-the-rim-and-slam-it-down role that was fashioned for him early on. There’s so much more to his game, his broad shoulders and impressive musculature notwithstanding. He has multiple offensive skills and instincts, even if getting him the ball has wrenched every instinct from the guards who normally handle it.
De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe like to drive and Malik Monk likes to shoot. For them, Bam has been a season-long afterthought, a third option. Fox’s drives are ballet-like affairs that get celebrated on SportsCenter, and Briscoe’s trips to the hoop defy physics. But they too often miss the shots while everyone else stands around in rapt admiration and disbelief. The same disbelief you and I and John Calipari share: How can he go in there one-against-three? And: How did he miss that?
Monk’s shooting has bailed Kentucky out of a number of close games and can truly be another wonderment to behold. But it’s also too often overconfident and ill-advised, with no regard for the shot clock, the defense, the fact that someone else might be open. It’s the thoughtless instincts of a typical freshman who was expected to do it all, whatever he wanted, in high school.
You all know the lament: “We’re a young team! We start four freshmen!”
Monk is a spectacular talent, but he has to be reined in. In a tight game that Kentucky is losing down the stretch, three-point shots with 20 seconds left on the shot clock are a lousy idea. So are no-look passes into a crowd.
Jamal Murray may have had that green light. There were not a lot of other options on that 2015-16 team. Besides, that team ended up going nowhere. Monk has options. And this team can’t go nowhere. It can’t be eliminated in the second round of the tournament. There’s simply too much talent, too much promise.
Calipari criticized the lack of assists against Tennessee, but I’m not a big fan of the statistic. For one thing, to register an assist, someone else has to make a shot. Kentucky missed 58 percent of its shots. In fact, take away Bam’s impressive seven-for-eight and the rest missed 65 percent.
Total baskets: 25. It doesn’t lend itself to a big assists night.
A far bigger statistic for me was the 14 turnovers. Not every turnover is egregious. But mindlessly traveling, or losing the ball, or throwing it to someone on the other team, or a dumb offensive foul – that is egregious. Why this, the most talented backcourt in the nation, should continue to do it is worrisome.
The other glaring weakness of the Tennessee loss was bench production. Calipari never likes to go deeper than eight men, but he does need to be able to go deeper than five. Derek Willis is actually a good inside player. He can be a strong rebounder and shot blocker. But if his only role is to score, he’s just not doing it consistently enough.
We know that Dominique Hawkins brings steady veteran play and good on-the-ball defense, but his stat line against Tennessee makes you wonder what he was doing in his 15 minutes on the court.
And Isaac Humphries simply too often isn’t there. We were assured that he had made great strides during the summer and was playing the best of anyone in practice. It’s not showing itself on the court. Which leaves the Kentucky frontcourt perilously thin, a bit like last year, especially whenever Adebayo has to sit down with mounting fouls.
Elsewhere, Wenyen Gabriel is athletic and energetic, but reed-thin and inexperienced. The worst thing for Gabriel would be for some NBA team to look at his height and his Kentucky pedigree and take a first-round chance on him this spring. He needs to fill out, both his frame and his game, and become a much-improved sophomore contributor.
It’s hard to know what to make of this year’s sophomore contributor: Isaiah Briscoe is court-savvy, a bulldog on both sides of the ball and intensely competitive. His 14 rebounds against Tennessee — not the first time he’s done that, either, this year or last — is a testament both to being smart and to being aggressive. I don’t even question his decision-making. But his propensity for taking the ball inside, against the odds, simply kills the offense.
When he makes one of his impossible shots, wow. But when he gets it blocked, or hits it against the bottom of the backboard, or gets tied up, or bounces it off his foot, or steps on the endline, that’s a costly trip downcourt with nothing to show for it. That’s an egregious turnover.
Okay, so Calipari spread the blame around after the loss, even including a student manager who hadn’t cleaned up a wet spot on the court. Monk slipped and was called for traveling as Kentucky was battling back into the game. Perhaps the manager was a freshman.
If the story of this team is that freshmen keep learning and improving and getting better, and it all culminates in a deep run into the tournament, the loss to Tennessee — even the upcoming game against Kansas at Rupp Arena — is just a footnote in the season. It has happened to Calipari’s Kentucky teams before.
But if the story is spotty shooting, poor decision-making, an unbalanced offense that relies too much on the jump shot and an unproductive bench in close games — and if that story never changes — the loss to Tennessee could be a disturbing view into the future.
At least wipe up the court.