Everything was going so well. This was a Kentucky basketball team that was fun to watch. That had beaten Miami by 22 points. That was certain to climb into the top 10 of the AP Top 25. They were playing so-called “modern basketball” while raising eyebrows across the nation. Until it all went splat.
Saturday brought a shock to the system. UNC Wilmington came to town off an eight-point loss at East Carolina less than 24 hours before. And as an 18-point underdog, the Seahawks upset the Wildcats 80-73 at Rupp Arena.
“They deserved to win the game,” said UK coach John Calipari of the program for which he was once a guard.
And Kentucky deserved to lose. Fresh off their impressive ACC/SEC Challenge win, the Cats weren’t ready to play. They fell behind 13-4 early. They trailed 41-33 at the half. When they finally pulled in front 48-46, then widened the lead to 55-49, they watched Wilmington execute a 13-1 run for a 62-56 lead. The Seahawks led the rest of the way.
Down the stretch, the visitors scored on eight of their final nine possessions. Time and again, UNCW took the ball right at Kentucky defenders on one-on-one drives to the hoop to draw fouls or score important baskets. Rinse and repeat.
“This was Saint Joe’s again where we couldn’t stay in front of the ball,” Calipari said afterward, referencing UK’s Nov. 20 game.
Kentucky beat St. Joseph’s 96-88 in overtime. The difference between that night and Saturday afternoon? UK shot 51.6 percent against the Hawks. It shot 40.7 against the Seahawks. UK was 12-of-25 from three-point range against St. Joseph’s. UK was 5-of-17 against Wilmington.
In fact, Kentucky’s offensive excellence through the first seven games had overshadowed an apparent weakness. After Saturday’s loss, Ken Pomeroy’s computer numbers rank Kentucky ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency, but 63rd in adjusted defensive efficiency.
UNCW was the fourth straight team to average more than 1.0 point per possession against the Cats. Not good. St. Joe’s was at 1.09, Marshall at 1.04, Miami at 1.01 and Wilmington at 1.03. Kentucky is now 121st nationally in two-point defense (48.1 percent) and 174th in three-point defense (32.7). Definitely not good.
Those numbers didn’t matter when Kentucky was shooting 63.9 percent against Stonehill, or 60.8 against Marshall or 59.7 against Miami. The defensive numbers mattered Saturday when the Cats shot just 40.7 percent against the Seahawks.
“They said you can’t do it with young guys, well we’ve kind of done it with young guys,” Calipari said. “But staying in front of the ball — now, you may have had a player on my team that was your favorite player in history, (but) if he got beat 17 times on straight-line drives. I can go down the line. It wasn’t just one guy now. And we’ve just got to get better at it.”
It should be noted that UK was without its starting point guard Saturday. Injured against Miami, D.J. Wagner did not dress Saturday. Without the New Jersey native, UK’s assist/turnover margin dropped to a season-low +1 with 14 assists/13 turnovers. Plus, Wagner has the quickness and moxy as a defender to stay in front of his man.
And Aaron Bradshaw did make his UK debut Saturday. The 7-foot-1 freshman played just 12:31. In that limited time, he did show shot-blocking ability. When at full strength, Bradshaw could provide rim protection for a team that is struggling on defense.
“Definitely,” Adou Thiero said, “but we’ve still got to get to the point where we don’t let guys beat us on the dribble. We’ve just got to work on our defense together.”
Team defense or individual defense?
“At some points it was individual, at some points it was team,” Thiero said. “We’ve just got to find it and fix it.”
This is an early point in the season for a young team that learned a lesson Saturday. The last game was the last game. Every team has a weakness. And “modern” offense may be fun to watch, but defense wins titles.