Kentucky basketball: Cats are 1-2 after losing to Kansas, but at least Cal knows why. 'We hit the skids offensively'
In 1971, a popular movie was released called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Three games into their 2020 season, the Kentucky Wildcats might make natural casting choices for a remake of the film.
Kentucky held Kansas to just under 30% shooting but couldn’t come up with a necessary basket down the stretch, falling 65-62 to the No. 7 Jayhawks at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
The 1-2 Wildcats have now watched first-half leads evaporate in each of their last 2 games due to fairly similar issues. Kentucky struggled throughout both games in shooting, particularly from 3-point range. The Cats also had too many turnovers. Between the 2 games, UK shot 3-for-31 from 3-point range and had 13 assists to 37 turnovers.
“We hit the skids offensively,” said UK coach John Calipari after the game. “I’m trying to figure it out.”
Kentucky played well early, jumping to a 17-5 lead on a dunk by senior transfer Davion Mintz. UK’s largest lead was 13, which the Wildcats last held on an layup from freshman forward Isaiah Jackson that made it 28-15 with 5:36 left in the first half. Kansas scrapped to within 35-29 at halftime.
Kentucky stretched the lead to 38-29 half a minute into the second half, but then endured a 7:28 scoreless streak, during which Kansas went on a 10-0 run. Sophomore transfer Jacob Toppin gave UK a second half lift off the bench, scoring 6 straight points as part of a run that saw UK regain the lead at 49-45 with 6:41 to play. But Kansas, led by freshman forward Jalen Wilson who finished with 23 points and 10 boards, had the answer, and held on for the 65-62 victory.
Kentucky’s highlights against Kansas largely came from the 6-9 freshman Jackson, who approached a triple-double with 7 points, 12 rebounds and 8 blocked shots. That said, even Jackson fell victim to the second-half swoon, as his first-half totals (7/10/4) were much more impressive than his second-half numbers (0/2/4), despite him playing 16 minutes after halftime and 14 minutes before it. Jackson was a significant part of holding Kansas to 29.9% shooting, and his length frustrated the Jayhawks throughout the game.
Mintz had 12 points off the bench, tying freshman guard BJ Boston for team scoring honors. With significant foul trouble (guard Terrence Clarke fouled out, and senior Olivier Sarr was limited to 14 minutes by foul trouble), Calipari played 10 players and UK finished with 22 bench points.
Shooting issues aside, Kentucky struggled due to a poor game from freshman point guard Devin Askew, who shot 1-for-5 and also had 4 turnovers against a single assist. Boston and Clarke also struggled, as the 5-star guards combined to shoot 7-for-24, including 0-for-8 from 3-point range. They combined for 6 turnovers to just 3 assists. The Wildcats’ post game was appreciably better, with Jackson and Sarr both looking solid, albeit with Sarr limited due to fouls.
Calipari relayed his impatience afterward with the point guard play: “Two points guards, three assists. Not enough.”
Kentucky is scheduled to play next on Sunday against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The Wildcats then will play games on 3 straight Saturdays against Notre Dame, UCLA and Louisville. None of those teams are ranked, but the No. 20 Wildcats may well be on the way to joining them in that status. Of course, in this season, best to keep the schedule written in pencil. Kansas starter Marcus Garrett was noted multiple times to be ill during the game, although Kansas indicated that he had tested negative for COVID-19. Still, watching an opposing player struggle with breathing was an unusual sight in 2020. Richmond has apparently had a positive test within their team shortly after playing Kentucky on Sunday.
Early-season struggles are nothing new for Calipari or his young UK teams. Last season’s Evansville loss was probably more perplexing than either the Richmond or Kansas losses. But 3 games in, Kentucky’s offense is badly broken. The Wildcats need capable shooters and they need a steady hand at point guard, where Mintz might be the best current option.
If the ‘Cats can’t get untracked shooting the basketball, it may indeed be a blue Christmas in Lexington.