By Jim Weber
People have been saying for the last month that a loss would be good for Kentucky. That includes John Calipari. The thinking is that a loss refocuses the team instead of walking into the NCAA tournament overconfident.
And Kentucky fans are the first to point out the 1996 season in which the Wildcats lost to Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game – also in New Orleans, no less – only to march through the NCAA tournament and finish off one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history with a national title.
Of course, for every example like that there is a counter example like the 2011 Packers, who lost for the first time last season to the Chiefs in Week 15 and then flamed out in the playoffs to the Giants.
While I was all for Kentucky losing a game in the SEC Tournament by getting out-hustled and out-muscled so that Calipari could rip into his team and refocus them this week (that also happened), what concerns me about the way the Wildcats played the last couple days is that they may have exposed their own fatal flaw.
And that appears to be exactly what happened over the last three days, especially Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in which the Wildcats shot 6-of-28 (21.4%) from behind the arc. For the whole weekend, UK wasn’t much better from behind the line, hitting just 12-of-53 attempts (22.6%).
Sunday in particular was eerily similar to Kentucky’s Elite Eight loss to West Virginia in 2010 in which UK shot 4-of-32 (12.5%) from downtown. The three-point shooting and scores of those two games were almost identical (73-66 vs. WVU, 71-64 vs. Vandy), as were the strategies employed by the Mountaineers and Commodores: Sit back in a zone defense and make Kentucky beat you with jumpers.
That Kentucky team was also a heavy favorite to win the tournament once Kansas was bounced in the second round by Northern Iowa. The Wildcats had steamrolled their first three opponents and let’s be honest: If we could go back in time and have a one-off game between that Kentucky team featuring John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson vs. that Duke team of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, UK would be an overwhelming favorite.
That Kentucky team appeared to have it all, including a 32-2 record entering the Big Dance and the No. 1 pick in that June’s NBA draft.
Because that’s exactly the situation Kentucky finds itself in now.
Of course, zone defenses are nothing new to defending Kentucky. Teams all year have tried to beat Kentucky with zone because, well, there isn’t any other option. The Wildcats are too big, strong and athletic for everyone else to play man-to-man. The zone is the best way to try and offset the frontcourt of Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis.
Unfortunately for opponents, UK has been very solid from outside between the combination of Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. As a team, UK has hit a solid 38% from deep. Lamb can especially be an assassin, as he’s shot 46% from downtown and makes UK unbeatable when he’s on.
But Lamb and Miller combined to go just 3-of-16 from 3-point range on Sunday, exposing a fatal flaw that previously wasn’t there for the Wildcats. And you can bet teams like Connecticut, Indiana, Baylor, Duke or whoever Kentucky faces on the road to New Orleans will use Vandy’s blueprint and make those two players beat them from the outside while mauling Jones and Davis in the paint.
Even more concerning is the fact Miller has not historically been a big factor for UK in the tournament (0-of-6 in that game vs. West Virginia) and Lamb was quiet last year in the postseason prior to the Final Four game against Connecticut.
There’s no need for panic yet in the Bluegrass State as UK has clearly been the best team in the nation all season long, they still have the best player in America in Davis and fellow No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Syracuse also lost in their conference tournaments.
But the pressure is clearly on John Calipari, who has been unable to shake the title of “best coach not to win a national title,” and a Kentucky program that feels the angst of Big Blue Nation dying for its first national title since 1998.
Anything less than a national title would be a huge disappointment. Anything less than a Final Four like in 2010 would be catastrophic.
And whether Kentucky cuts down the nets next month in New Orleans will squarely be on the shoulders of two shooters that already came up short once in the Big Easy.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.