The Bad and the Ugly

sad JamalWell, Big Blue Nation, it’s going to be like this for as long as this season goes on.

When the Cats play well, hopes soar, expectations explode and visions of Houston dance in BBN’s dreams.

And when it doesn’t play well, you get a 12-point loss to Vanderbilt.

How badly did they play at Vanderbilt? Let’s count:

Free-throw shooting was abysmal – 43.5 percent is unacceptable, even with Marcus Lee’s pleasantly surprising 5-for-9.

We’ve been hearing for months that Isaiah Briscoe was actually a good free-throw shooter in high school. Maybe Cal saw him on a good afternoon. It’s true that the college game is quicker and more complicated than high school: The competition is bigger and better, the crowds larger and louder. But when it’s just you standing at the line, bouncing the ball, it’s pretty much the same as in high school. The rim’s in the same place. If he could shoot then, he ought to be able to shoot now. He missed two with the score 60-56, and that was the beginning of the end of any Kentucky offense for the evening.

Rebounding was also abysmal – the Cats were outrebounded only 39-37, but 20 of those came from the guards. Of the bigs, Lee had six,  Alex Poythress had only three and Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries had just one apiece.

The offense was, – you guessed it – abysmal, especially if you take away Jamal Murray’s 33 points and 12-for-20 shooting. We saw what happens when Tyler Ulis has a bad game – and on network TV, yet. There’s also the fact that nobody else can shoot the ball. Only four Cats scored. Poythress didn’t take a shot, and he scored 16 a month ago when Kentucky dismantled Vanderbilt at Rupp; Humphries missed his only two shots, Skal his only attempt. Over and over again, Ulis dribbled around the half-court trying to find someone credible to give the ball to but often ended up forcing it up himself. He was 5-for-20, 0-7 from the three-point line. This was especially true in the second half when Vanderbilt double and triple-teamed Murray and let Briscoe, Skal, Lee, Matthews, Hawkins or anyone else try to beat them.

By the end of the game, Ulis and Murray looked worn out. They were missing, and then they were passing up shots altogether. Near the end, when a comeback was still possible, both of them gave up their shots and let Briscoe shoot from the corner. He missed. It drove Calipari crazy.

When it mattered, down the stretch, the Cats failed to score. They clunked their last nine shots, failing to score during the final three minutes and 47 seconds. They shot less than 27 percent in the second half. They scored 23 points in the half.

That’s good Vandy defense, of course, but it’s also fatigue and a worrisome thinness on the offensive end. Somebody else has to be able to score the ball.

There was a lot of post-Vandy conversation about Poythress “disappearing.” There was even some commentary that he couldn’t wait for his basketball career at Kentucky to be over. How could he go from the effective athlete in the Alabama game to the invisible one in the Vanderbilt game?

What jumped out at me from the box score was not his zero points but his zero shots. Was there a reason he wasn’t touching the ball? Was that on him, not fighting for position or creating spaces? Or was that on the people with the ball? Were Ulis, Briscoe and Murray not even looking for him?

So it’s on to Florida on Tuesday (you’ll know the outcome by the time this article is published) and then LSU at Rupp on Saturday.

And then it’s tourney time. Which Kentucky team will show up? And that seems to start with the following questions: When will Derek Willis return? And how healthy will his ankle be? It has become clear how much of a difference he brings to the UK offense. He might miss a few from the corner. He might miss a defensive assignment, get caught behind a screen, be late getting to a three-point shooter. But on offense, he always makes the other team think.

As long as he’s a threat from the perimeter, they can’t pack it in on Murray. Big Blue Nation can take comfort from the assumption that Ulis won’t have another bad game like this one.

And one other thing seems certain: Given the pattern for this entire season, whatever we’ve said after the Vanderbilt game will be incorrect following Florida.

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF