Three takeaways from No. 12 Kentucky basketball’s loss to UNC Wilmington

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 80-73 upset loss to UNC Wilmington on Saturday at Rupp Arena:

1. These young Wildcats are indeed human

After Tuesday, everyone was tripping over themselves to pat the young kids on the back. These young Kentucky Wildcats. These same young Kentucky Wildcats that took apart No. 8-ranked Miami 95-73 in the ACC/SEC Shootout. These same young Kentucky Wildcats who were off to an impressive 6-1 start.

Then Saturday, it was the one Wildcat who is not a young Wildcat, the veteran Tre Mitchell who said, “We’re human.”

To a man, the Cats said they were ready to play Saturday against a 5-2 UNC Wilmington team from the Colonial Athletic Conference that was No. 145 in the kenpom efficiency rankings — UK was 11th — and lost 74-66 at East Carolina on Thursday night, less than 48 hours before the Seahawks took the floor at Rupp.

But the Cats didn’t look ready. They didn’t play ready. They fell behind 13-4 out of the gate, forcing John Calipari to call a timeout with 15:01 left in the first half. They trailed 41-33 at the half. Even when they finally took the lead in the second half at 48-46 with 15:36 remaining and stretched it to 55-49 at the 12:49 mark, they watched UNCW respond with a 13-1 run. The visitors never trailed after that.

“I thought everyone was ready to play,” said Adou Thiero afterward.

Thinking you’re ready is one thing. Actually being ready is another. Saturday’s outcome was a tough lesson for this young group of humans. But it’s also a valuable one. The next exam question is how will they respond in the next game, Saturday vs. Penn in Philadelphia.

Kentucky’s Tre Mitchell (4), pictured with Rob Dillingham (0) and Adou Thiero (3), said after Saturday’s loss: “We’re human.”
Kentucky’s Tre Mitchell (4), pictured with Rob Dillingham (0) and Adou Thiero (3), said after Saturday’s loss: “We’re human.”

2. Offensive excellence masked defensive deficiencies

On the way to that 6-1 record, Calipari’s Cats were ranked No. 3 in kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. They were third third nationally in three-point field goal percentage (42.6), first in turnover percentage (10.9) and third in effective field goal percentage (60.7). They had shot 52 percent or better from the field in each of their last four games.

Those gaudy numbers had shielded the fact that Kentucky was just 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Mr. Pomeroy. UK was 161st in guarding the three-point shot, 117th in guarding two-point attempts and 87th in forcing turnovers.

Those numbers came back to bite the Cats on Saturday. Wilmington made 11 of 31 three-pointers for 35.5 percent. They turned the ball over just 12 times. And time after time down the stretch they took the ball right at the Cats on straight-line drives for big buckets.

“This was St. Joe’s again where we couldn’t say in front of the ball,” said Calipari, referencing Kentucky’s 96-88 overtime win over St. Joseph’s back on Nov. 20.

There was one difference in that game. Kentucky shot 51.6 percent from the floor that night, compared to 40.7 on Saturday. Kentucky was 12-of-25 from beyond the arc against the Hawks. They were 5-of-17 from three against the Seahawks.

And after Kentucky cut UNCW’s lead to 70-66 with 2:45 left, head coach Takayo Siddle had his team drive the ball one-on-one time after time against the UK defense. The result was either baskets or free throws. And a celebration in the visitors’ locker room.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari as University of Kentucky Men’s basketball team lost 73-80 to UNC Wilmington at Central Bank Center Rupp Arena on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari as University of Kentucky Men’s basketball team lost 73-80 to UNC Wilmington at Central Bank Center Rupp Arena on Saturday Dec. 2, 2023 in Lexington, Ky.

3. Healthy D.J. Wagner and Aaron Bradshaw are needed

Aaron Bradshaw made his UK debut Saturday. The 7-foot-1 freshman made his first game appearance since injuring a foot in the McDonald’s All-Star Game back in the spring. The New Jersey native eased into it. He scored three points, grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot in 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, starting point guard D.J. Wagner missed his first game. Injured in the first half of the Miami game, Wagner sat out Saturday. As for his injury situation, Caiipari said, “I have no news on D.J. at all.”

He was missed. The Cats had committed nine or fewer turnovers in six of their first seven games. They committed nine in the first half Saturday. They ended up with 13 turnovers on the game, compared to 14 assists. That was well below their usual assist-to-turnover ratio.

The Cats were also held to 12 fast-break points, compared to 23 against Miami. Calipari complained afterward that his team held the ball too much. “I understand our starting point guard is out, but we didn’t play the same way,” said the coach, adding, “We were trying to make the hardest play.”

In Wagner’s absence, Rob Dillingham was held to two points. The freshman recorded three assists, but was charged with four turnovers. Reed Sheppard led UK with 25 points and six assists, but he also turned it over three times and had his problems on defense in the final minutes.

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