Weekend Homework: Kentucky’s next step

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
11:00
AM ET

How impatient is John Calipari? On Monday, ahead of a trip to LSU, he admitted to reporters (in an otherwise characteristically positive news conference) that he just wished his young team was “further along.”

You know what happened next: The Wildcats laid an 87-82 egg in Baton Rouge, La., a game they started in a 22-6 hole and finished by failing to foul LSU with 13 seconds left to play. UK allowed 29 points and nine rebounds (on 12-of-20 shooting) to Tigers senior center Johnny O'Bryant; it gave up 1.13 points per possession to a team shooting 32.0 percent from 3 in SEC play.

With the exception of swingman James Young, who shot the ball well en route to 23 points, pretty much every Wildcat played horribly. Julius Randle submitted his worst game of the season -- a disengaged 3-for-11, six-point, five-rebound, three-turnover effort. Willie Cauley-Stein made one field goal and had three points in 18 minutes. Until three last-ditch 3-pointers in the final 43 seconds, Aaron Harrison was 2-of-10 with five points and four turnovers. His brother, Andrew Harrison, finished 2-of-7 and earned the distinction of being the first player in recent memory to have his head coach literally come on the court to push him into the correct position during open play.

[+] EnlargeJulius Randle
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsJulius Randle was a bit off for Kentucky on Tuesday, and the Wildcats aren't operating on enough cylinders to be able to overcome that.
You didn’t need a transcript of his brief postgame comments to understand the extent of Calipari’s frustration. He showed it all night at LSU: begging, pleading, cajoling, berating and eventually just straight-up physically rearranging his players. And the Wildcats still couldn’t get there.

“This team is a work in progress,” Calipari said. “It’s all about a process. The process we’re at right now is: Will we have the mental toughness to break through and really be the team we want to be?”

But what kind of team is Kentucky, anyway?

The most disconcerting thing about Tuesday night’s loss -- besides the general lack of “mental toughness” Calipari cited -- is that LSU managed to out-UK UK. LSU’s interior strength prevented matchup issues, sure, but the Wildcats have managed to play top-15-level basketball for most of the season on the strength of their interior play. They rebound more of their misses (43.5 percent) than any team in the country. They shoot a higher rate of free throws to field goals (55.1 percent) than all but five teams. While the Harrison twins, and to a lesser extent Young, have stuttered in their development and production, Randle and Cauley-Stein have managed to anchor the Wildcats on both ends of the floor.

That didn’t happen Tuesday. And while you might chalk up Randle’s off night as just that, Cauley-Stein’s inconsistency is more troubling. When both players are active and engaged, the Harrisons can struggle in the backcourt and Young can shoot his season average of 34 percent from 3 (which is hardly terrible, but also not good enough to erase errors elsewhere) and Kentucky can still win. The reverse is also true -- remember that Kentucky didn’t have Randle in the second half against Louisville and still managed to finish off a win. But that either-or proposition means Randle has to be great every night. It makes UK’s margin for error unusually slim.

All in all, a road loss at a tough matchup isn’t apocalyptic. But it does make Saturday afternoon’s game at Missouri an important one in Kentucky’s development. We keep talking about the Cats’ ceiling, about what they’ll look like in March, about how fearsome they could be when they finally put it all together -- the backcourt, the frontcourt, the drive, the mental energy.

It’s February now, though, and we’re still not sure. When will Kentucky take that next step? Or, more precisely: Can it?

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