By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Everyone has a take on what is going on with UK Basketball. Here’s mine.
John Calipari runs a simple basketball system. Not easy but simple. Get the fastest, most talented, most lengthy and athletic players that can be recruited out of high school and put them into the most simple offensive and defensive system possible so they can wear down and eventually overwhelm their opponent through sheer athleticism over a 40-minute game.
As mentioned above it is a simple plan but not easy. And it has been effective in moving UK into position to always be competing for a National Championship. More importantly for the players it puts them in a position to be prepared to “play for pay” in the NBA – a league that is known for stellar one-on-one play from it’s players.
Unfortunately for it to work effectively each year in college the talent margin between Calipari’s players and the opposition has to be significant enough to overcome the “teamwork” and “experience” factors that are an integral part of most college basketball teams. Therein lies the rub.
When UK teams meet up with opponents that possess enough coaching strategy, experience and basketball ability and have athleticism that is close to UK’s it usually derails the Wildcats. As an example think about a UK team that was 38-0 and lost in the 2015 Final Four to a more physical and experienced Wisconsin team. Athletically no other team in the tournament could match up with that Karl-Anthony Towns led team but with a week for Wisconsin’s coach Bo Ryan to prepare his strategy – and his players to learn exactly what they needed to do to defeat UK – the Badgers pulled off the upset.
This season it appears time after time that a very long and athletic UK team loses to a team that isn’t as gifted athletically but knows how to play the game as a team, plays physically and then executes a game plan to win. Generally on offense they beat the Wildcat perimeter defenders off the dribble which opens up the lane for a layup if no one rotates on defense – which is frequent – or the player passes the ball to the corner for an open three pointer if the defense does rotate.
Most opponents have used multiple screening action and curls off the screen along with backdoor cuts to score. Although the UK defense has improved some as the season has progressed it is still well below where it needs to be to compete in the new SEC.
On offense the simple high screen pick-and-roll does not work if the guards passing skills are sub-par or the roll man is not skilled or physical enough to set and hold an effective pick. Accurate outside shooting has also been an issue for this team which in turn does not allow them to use the “pick-and-pop” – a staple of previous Calipari teams.
With no consistent outside shooting, no post-up game and no ability to consistently beat the defense off the dribble it is very difficult to compete offensively against Top 25 teams.
One other glaring area of weakness for this team seems to be “want to.” Desire. Heart. Call it what you will but this year’s version of the Wildcats does not seem to have the inner grit that it takes to step up when the competition does. No talk of extra work in the gym, leadership from players in extra workouts like a “breakfast club” or “late night workouts” like previously successful Calipari teams.
Part of that can be attributed to youth and no upperclass leadership but previous Calipari teams seemed to always have a few freshmen – think Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Karl-Anthony Towns – that could step up and provide off the court leadership when it was sorely needed. Not the case this year.
Overall this year’s team doesn’t have the large talent advantage that previous teams have enjoyed. With a lack of leadership, experience, Top 10 talent required to make Calipari’s system work and an improved SEC it appears that this team may be doomed to a fate similar to the Archie Goodwin-led team of 2013. A quick exit from whatever post-season tournament they qualify for.
The bright side of a sub-par season for the Wildcats is that most of these players will be returning next season as sophomores and juniors. Let’s hope after this season is over – win or lose – that the players can do some soul-searching and like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz find a little heart.
It sure has been missing this year. Finding a couple of outside shooters that can play defense wouldn’t hurt either.