Not surprisingly, when you lose, you expose all those weaknesses in your game, the ones that didn’t amount to much when you were winning.
You could blame it on the freshmen, of course – immature, undisciplined, overwhelmed by the big stage.
But Bam Adabayo is a freshman, and he grabbed rebounds, battled defensively and made his free throws. Many of his point-blank shots bounced off or rolled around, but he battled. On defense, it often looked like he was playing one against three, the consequence I guess of going with a three-guard lineup.
Isaiah Briscoe is not a freshman. But when the flow of the game broke down, Briscoe resorted to what we saw way too much of last year – putting his head down and driving to the basket, one on three. And, amazingly, stepping along and across the end line on three separate occasions. Rally-killers!
Derek Willis is not a freshman. But for some reason, the player everyone expects to provide some three-point shooting disappears for long stretches when he’s on the court. You watch Malik Monk and Mychal Mulder. They have a shooter’s mentality. When the ball hits their hands, they’re firing. And when they miss, they’re firing the next time.
Not Willis. He passes up open shots, doesn’t seem to demand the ball. John Calipari says he wants – in fact, expects – Willis to shoot those when he has them. But maybe four years of Cal’s tough love have taken their toll on Willis’ confidence. (Otherwise, Willis is showing us he’s really a wonderful athlete.)
Speaking of Mulder, he was a no-show. Cal went to a short bench against UCLA. That’s always been his preference, but one wonders if Mulder’s three-point shooting might have helped when Kentucky was trying to claw back. Or if Sacha Killeya-Jones, another did-not-play, would have contributed a big body flying around underneath.
Kentucky’s guards have been doing a nice job of rebounding all season, but UCLA was the biggest team they’ve played so far – and they just killed the Cats on offensive rebounds and taps that kept the ball alive. Bam battled, but nobody else got into the scrum and so too many rebounds bounced from one UCLA big to another.
And once again, for the uncountable time in the last several years, an unheralded big man went up against Kentucky and just flew around, creating havoc and battling for loose balls while he was on the floor. In this case, UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu was the havoc-maker. I’ve been trying to think, of all Cal’s big men at Kentucky, who ever played that role. Only DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Willie Cauley-Stein come to mind.
I’m not talking about skill or hard work. Patrick Patterson, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns all had plenty of that. I’m talking about a kind of disruptive recklessness that gets the other team out of its rhythm.
The vaunted UK defense, the one that Cal feels can take them all the way to Phoenix, just couldn’t prevent UCLA from hitting one shot after another. A lot of those were open shots from the elbow. Players got open, and UCLA guards seemed able to find them. Kentucky had those too, they just missed them.
But UCLA also seemed to hit a three whenever it needed one, even though the box score said 10 of 23. Some were the kind where a Kentucky man was right up on the shooter, but a great many were open threes. Cal has a thing about not defending the three. I’m guessing he’s been mentioning it to the team this week. Perhaps passing them notes.
Some of this feels, to me, like the disappointment after the early-season loss to Indiana in December 2011, a loss Anthony Davis & Co. rectified three months later. One hopes this bunch has the same ability to shrug it off, learn from the mistakes and soldier on. It certainly has the talent.
Nobody should be down on De’Aaron Fox, still the most electric player I’ve seen in a long time; or Monk, fearless, cold-hearted shotmaker; or Bam, stalwart big man still improving his game; or Briscoe, incomparable competitor. Just get back on the horse.
Cal mocked a reporter last week for congratulating him on setting a new Rupp Arena win record. Maybe Cal, on second thought, ought to be savoring those home wins. UCLA’s coming into Rupp and snapping a 42-game run was insulting, like a home break-in.
“Hey, disrespect! This is my house!”
One hopes these young, happy Cats are angry now. VT