No team in college basketball has ever started a season 1-6 and gone on to earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
That’s the daunting trend Kentucky is actively trying to buck after its sluggish start to the season. And even with a rebound of late relative to that hideous start — with three wins in its last six outings bookended by a disheartening last-second loss to Georgia that extended its losing streak to three games — the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament prospects are dimming by the day. Barring a miraculous and unforeseen rally, it seems a ticket to the tourney this year must come in the form of an automatic bid by winning the SEC Tournament, or it will not come at all. And a consolation appearance in the NIT isn’t a foregone conclusion, either; NIT-bound teams must qualify with a .500 record or better. Getting to a winning record seems farfetched as it stands, but even reaching a .500 record right now seems overly ambitious.
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“It’s unacceptable where we are right now. Unacceptable,” said John Calipari on Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters after his team took its second consecutive loss in SEC play over the weekend. “I’m trying to figure out everything I can, because I am not happy. At all.”
The problems at Kentucky spread far and wide, touching every facet of the game.
It is offensive playmaking — or the lack thereof — that is severely hampering UK’s offense. The team ranks dead last in the SEC in total assists per game, and second-to-last — behind only 1-11 Washington — among all power programs in that statistical category.
It is poor shooting — particularly from beyond the arc — that plagues UK’s offense on a nightly basis. The team ranks 12th in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage, and 291st among all power programs in that category. It went 1-for-13 from distance against Georgia.
And more than poor shooting, it is also poor shot selection. ShotQuality.com tracks the quality of shot selection among all Division I teams, and Kentucky ranks next to last among all SEC teams and 138th nationally. So not only does UK’s roster lack great shooters, and not only have the shooting numbers been bad, but the quality of shots is seemingly compounding the tangential issues at hand.
“I mentioned to [the team] today: Look, guys, we’re playing defense as well as anybody in the country (but) we’re not making baskets,” Calipari said. “I said ‘Why?’ I looked at Riley Welch and he said, ‘Because our shot selection stinks.’ It’s a key for us. Now, you could say ‘Coach you also miss wide-open shots and free throws.’ We do. But we have too many tough shots we take, and we shouldn’t. We’re working on it.”
Exacerbating matters, Calipari doesn’t have a quick fix at his disposal. Shooting can be cyclical and subject to ebbs and flows. And maybe the team improves. But only one player — Dontaie Allen, who didn’t get his first start until Wednesday — is hitting 3-pointers at a rate above 35% on the season. This team isn’t just going through a slump; 12 games into the season, this team’s identity is that it is a poor shooting team. Period. It’ll have to find ways to win with defense and patch-work offense along the way.
“We can’t trade ’em. This is who they are,” Calipari said about his team, acknowledging that, yeah, this team has some serious flaws.
But what he failed to acknowledge is his role in assembling this roster and managing it. Calipari is widely regarded as one of the all-time ace recruiters in college hoops, and he put together top-two recruiting classes in each of the last two cycles. He has hall of fame credentials, and he more or less has his pick of the litter on the transfer market. Yet this team struggles every nearly every possession to initiate offense, the roster pieces themselves don’t totally fit, the highly touted No. 1 recruiting class from last year has not been as impactful as expected, the shot selection is bad and the shot-making is even worse. Most, if not all of that, could be remedied by Calipari himself recruiting pieces that better fit his system, or by foreseeing sore spots on his team that have reared their ugly head all season.
And playing optimal lineups has been a struggle for him, too, as he’s tried to juggling recruiting credentials with on-court production. He made a tweak to the starting lineup against Georgia, benching freshman BJ Boston and inserting Dontaie Allen and Lance Ware into the starting rotation, and it seemed to work: Kentucky led by seven points in the second half, Boston came close to a career-high and looked rejuvenated off the bench. But alas, the end result was the same as it’s been on eight other occasions this season — and a tweak with 12 games into the season may be too little too late anyhow for a team now battling real adversity. That it took him this long to make those changes is as damning as anything.
Because he has failed in those regards, it appears UK is destined for a fourth consecutive year ranked outside the top-100 nationally in team assists per game, and a fifth consecutive year ranked outside the top-100 nationally in team 3-point percentage. Most of all, though, it appears UK is likely to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, a season infamously derailed by a Nerlens Noel ACL tear. Only this time, Calipari has no one but himself to blame.
“You can see I’m frustrated,” Calipari said this weekend. “But we are here, we still have our chances. I’m not giving up on anybody. [We have to] try to figure it out.”