After back-to-back losses, Kentucky basketball searching for fix to stagnant offense
LEXINGTON – Three games into the 2020-21 season, and Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is already getting philosophical about his team’s struggles.
“You have to know what keeps you from losing before you can win,” Calipari said. “We don’t know it yet because we’re still not playing for ourselves.”
After dropping a second consecutive game, this one a 65-62 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic, the young Wildcats are rapidly gaining experience in what causes a loss.
Against both Richmond and Kansas, Kentucky excelled defensively only to be undone by putrid offensive showings.
In Indianapolis Tuesday, UK shot just 26.7% from the field in the second half. For the game, Kentucky totaled 16 turnovers and just eight assists while hitting just 3 of 21 3-point attempts.
Through three games, Kentucky is now shooting 19.1% (9 for 47) from 3-point range and has tallied 52 turnovers with 31 assists.
“We defended them, we guarded them,” Calipari said. “We just weren’t rough enough.”
The post-Kansas film session figures to offer Kentucky players no shortage of examples of the type of plays that can turn a game in which they held their opponent to 29.9% shooting and blocked 12 shots into a loss.
Finding examples of the type of plays needed to win games will be much more difficult.
“We’re young,” said freshman forward Isaiah Jackson, who flirted with a triple-double with seven points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks but missed a crucial rebound on a Kansas free throw attempt in the final minute. “We’ve got a lot to work on still.”
Eight of Kentucky’s 16 turnovers against Kansas came from point guards Devin Askew and Davion Mintz. Star freshmen Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke combined to shoot 7 for 24 from the field and missed all eight of their 3-point attempts. Senior forward Olivier Sarr was excellent when he was on the court but was limited to just 14 minutes due to foul trouble.
With just two days between the Richmond and Kansas games, it was unlikely Kentucky’s offense was going to magically fix its issues, but Calipari hoisted the blame on himself for the performance.
“I’m trying to figure out how we get a good shot,” he said. “I haven’t figured it out for the kids yet, but I will. I will. It will take time, but we’ll figure it out.”
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The Hall of Fame coach should have more time to address the problems with no mid-week games scheduled between now and Dec. 26, but he suggested many of the fixes will require players still learning to trust their teammates and coaches to embrace playing in ways that take them out of their comfort zone.
Kentucky’s next three opponents (Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and UCLA) are a combined 1-4 through the first week of the season. Those games look like opportunities for Kentucky to build some positive momentum, but all three opponents will boast experience advantages over a UK team starting four freshmen and a transfer and will attempt to take advantage many of the same weaknesses that Richmond and Kansas exploited.
Calipari is no stranger to the challenges of getting freshmen with one eye on the NBA to buy into his vision, but even he acknowledged not every player accepts the changes he says are needed.
Boston and Clarke must play like stars, but they cannot force shots and let the game turn into a series of one-on-one battles. Askew and Mintz must find their teammates open shots but also be willing to give the ball up early in possessions. Sarr must be the physical presence that can battle older opponents but has to stay out of foul trouble.
“This is all stuff that it’s on me to get these kids to play right,” Calipari said. “It’s on me. They’re all good kids, really good kids. They’re a little immature. You know why? Because they’re 19 years old. They’ve never been challenged and coached this way, and they’ve never played in an environment like Kentucky.”
Blending 10 new players together was never going to be easy. The continued absence of sophomore forward Keion Brooks to a leg injury has only added to the challenge.
Losing two early games to quality opponents does little to change the potential for a talented group of players, but nothing is guaranteed. Just because most of Calipari’s teams have learned from early growing pains to peak in time for the NCAA Tournament does not guarantee this one will follow the same path.
“I tell them to unpack their bags,” Calipari said. “Put the clothes in the dresser. Let’s worry about being a good college player and a good college team. Listen. What you’re doing is not working, so now it’s time to listen.”
Back-to-back losses should help convince Kentucky’s players that change is needed. The pressure is now on Calipari to figure out exactly which changes will position this team to actually make the most of its talent.