At this point, we’ve seen enough of this Kentucky men’s basketball team to know it is what it is, a team that continues to come up small in big games.
Tuesday night was a big game. Kentucky vs. Arkansas. Two teams with similar regular-season resumes. Two bubble teams battling to play their way into the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks rose to the occasion. The Wildcats wilted. Final: Arkansas 88, Kentucky 73.
I know, I know, there is that outlier, the Wildcats’ 63-56 win at then fifth-ranked Tennessee back on Jan. 14. Considering Tuesday’s loss dropped Kentucky to 1-7 in Quad 1 games and 41st in the NCAA NET rankings, hindsight tells us that Saturday in Knoxville had more to do with what Tennessee didn’t do than what Kentucky did do.
Consider Kentucky’s results in other marquee matchups. Michigan State in the Champions Classic. Double-overtime loss. Gonzaga in Spokane. A 16-point loss. UCLA in New York. A 10-point loss. Missouri in Columbia. A 14-point loss. Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A 26-point loss. Kansas at Rupp. A nine-point loss. The Razorbacks in Rupp. A 15-point loss.
The latter was a one-point game at halftime. Despite UK Coach John Calipari spending the first 20 minutes ranting at the refs — the only thing keeping Cal from an ejection was UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua’s yeoman’s job boxing out his boss from the officials — the home team trailed just 41-40 at the break.
Arkansas then opened the second half with three straight baskets. Two were breakaway dunks off UK turnovers. A snowball quickly became an avalanche. With 6:39 left, Arkansas led 72-58 as UK fans flooded the exits. Past their bedtimes. By half’s end, the Razorbacks had shot a ridiculous 72 percent.
“Come on,” Calipari said afterward. “We’re a pretty good defensive team, but we weren’t tonight.”
Is Kentucky a pretty good defensive team? The numbers disagree. Arkansas shot 62.7 percent from the field for the game, the highest percentage by a UK opponent in the Calipari era. The Razorbacks averaged a boisterous 1.306 points per possession, dropping UK to 89th in kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating.
Regardless of what you may think of Eric Musselman, the man can coach. Since arriving in Arkansas, he’s 15-1 in February games. He’s the first Razorbacks coach to win back-to-back games at Rupp. He knows how to find an opponent’s weakness and exploit that weakness.
For instance, Arkansas joined the increasing number who have cracked the Oscar Tshiebwe code. Last season’s national player of the year missed 12 of 14 shots against Florida last Saturday. Arkansas limited UK’s 6-foot-9 center to seven points and seven rebounds. There were times Tuesday you forgot Tshiebwe was even in the game.
Meanwhile, at the offensive end, time and again Arkansas drove to the basket and scored without much resistance from a UK defender. At one point, a flabbergasted Antigua nearly fell over in his chair as Arkansas’ Davonte Davis drove unchallenged for an easy layup.
“They got downhill on us,” was UK freshman Chris Livingston’s description.
Calipari: “Our rim protection was awful. I couldn’t get our guys to body-up.”
Time now to man-up. Past time, actually. Bludgeoned at Bama, the shaken Cats suffered that embarrassing home loss to lowly South Carolina. They can’t let that happen Saturday against a reeling Georgia in Athens. Next Wednesday’s date with Mississippi State in Starkvegas will be no picnic. On Feb. 18, a revenge-minded Tennessee visits Rupp. Another big game.
Could Kentucky catch fire and make an NCAA Tournament run, a la North Carolina a year ago. It’s possible, not probable. For one thing, Calipari’s club is now 16-8 overall, 7-4 in the SEC. It’s in clear danger of not hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.
After all, by this point, we’ve seen enough of what we’ve seen to know what we know. This Kentucky team is just another team, good against average opponents, not good enough against better ones. Can it find a way to pull itself up off the mat and change our minds? We shall see.