(LAS VEGAS, Nv.) — No. 6 Kentucky sleepwalked throughout the majority of their matchup with unranked Utah Wednesday night. Although the 'Cats rallied from a 17-point deficit late, they ultimately fell victim to a mediocre Runnin' Utes squad, 69-66, amid a sea of blue at T-Mobile Arena. Of particular concern, the 'Cats didn't match their opponents' intensity level until the closing minutes of a frenzied comeback, becoming marked men in the process.
Calipari remained uncharacteristically subdued on the sideline as the Wildcats played lackadaisical and continually clanked three-pointers off the side of the rim. "I walk into every game and I say the same thing," Calipari offered beforehand. "Win or lose, I'll deal with whatever happens so that I can just coach the game." Based upon their less than stellar performance, it's debatable whether or not Calipari appropriately coached the game and properly prepared his team.
With the 'Cats underachieving, questions immediately surfaced regarding Calipari's coaching ability. According to Calipari himself, Utah's Larry Krystkowiak one-upped him. "He out-coached me, the way they did it," Cal readily admitted afterwards. "They out-played us and deserve to win the game." Cal's lack of crucial in-game adjustments aside, cold-shooting derails even the best teams and Calipari's comments hold no relevance other than coach speak.
If Cal's coaching philosophy isn't the problem, then what's wrong? UK's lack of a physical presence underneath coupled with their inability to shoot the ball complicates matters. EJ and Nick both play more of a finesse game, preferring pick and pop mid-range jumpers rather than initiating contact down low—i.e., they're soft. Utah's insignificant frontcourt consistently pushed both players off the block and bullied them out of rebounding position with minimal resistance.
In a game tailor-made for Richards’ length and athleticism, he not only reverted, but disappeared for long stretches. His lack of physicality and habitual fumbling of the ball creates a dilemma. Richards managed just 5-points and secured only 4 rebounds. Calipari frequently touts Richards’ potential as one of the best big men in the country, but his production doesn't back up that statement—nor does it appear that his future development will reflect what Calipari envisions.
Calipari repeatedly stated that his team consisted of players who didn't just take shots but made them on a consistent basis. After a frigid 2-of-17 performance from deep sealed Kentucky's fate, their three-point percentage slipped to a brutal 27.5 percent. What Cal initially viewed as one of his best shooting teams stands poised to become one of his worst. Why not focus more on Johnny Juzang's maturation? Oh yeah, the old coaches coach and players play routine.
Despite their offensive woes from the perimeter, the ‘Cats battled back behind the dogged determination of Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans. Hagans created chaos with his smothering defensive pressure and turned up the heat late, accounting for 4 thefts which kept the ‘Cats within striking distance. Only two Wildcats reached double digits in the City of Lights. Maxey led the ‘Cats with 18-points while Hagans added 16-points along with 8 assists in the loss.
Calipari acknowledged freshman Kahlil Whitney’s importance during his pre-Las Vegas press conference. “I’ve told the team, we’ve got a ceiling unless he plays for us,” Calipari emphasized. “We don’t have anybody like him, he’s the one.”
Although Kentucky doesn’t necessarily have a go-to-player, Whitney possesses a unique skill set and specific physical attributes which could make him a potential X-Factor. If Whitney develops, he could become a game-changer for the ‘Cats.
UK wears a proverbial bull's-eye on their chest which makes them marked men. Could Whitney morph into a player similar to DeAndre Liggins? Maybe, but that doesn’t solve the shooting woes. “Kahlil’s got to play at a level he’s capable of playing for us to be what we need to be and everybody knows it,” Cal said. “And it may take time.” Let’s hope Kahlil and the ‘Cats figure it out soon before losses mount and their best-case March scenario turns into a potential 4 or 5 seed.