Loss To Notre Dame Exposes UK's Identity And Leadership Issues

11/30/2012 12:11 AM

After his team dismantled Kentucky in what amounted to a nationally televised infomercial for Notre Dame and after students had stormed the floor to celebrate thumping the Cats, Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey said, “I’m glad we played them now, because they’re really young and talented and they’re going to be better in January and February.”

It would be really tough for them to be worse.

Kentucky looked to be everything critics (and John Calipari) said they were right now. They were timid, disorganized on offense, unable to defend the three or grab a rebound. There was a lack of leadership on the floor and communication breakdowns on defense left them looking foolish on a number of possessions. If there was something that could go wrong for the Cats, there’s a pretty good chance that it did Thursday night in South Bend.

That’s not to say that Notre Dame didn’t earn the win, though. The Irish hit big shots – some that maybe the even shouldn’t have (I’m looking at you, step-back three-pointers) – and the ball seemed to be bouncing Notre Dame’s way all night. Sometimes it’s just your night and that certainly seemed to be the case for the Irish. It was a feeling that was all too familiar during the Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie era, but one that we’ve rarely seen since John Calipari took charge. And that’s mostly because great teams can overcome those types of nights. The problem, though, is that Kentucky isn’t a great team. Not yet, at least. In fact, it’s a team that still hasn’t quite figured out what it’s identity is on either side of the floor.

Without question, this is not what you would call a defensive team. Don’t get me wrong. It should be a team whose trademark is defense, but there are so many breakdowns in communication right now that it doesn’t matter if they have ten seven-footers in the paint. The other team is getting buckets. Too often against Notre Dame, guys were getting hung up on screens or getting beat back door and the help was a second too late. For a team made up of players with the physical tools to be great defenders, that likely means it’s simply a matter of communication. And that’s something that shouldn’t surprise any of us.

John Calipari tried to warn us at UK Media Day that he was worried about his team’s quietness on the floor and we shrugged it off. Even during the exhibition slate, when there were six or seven possessions against Transylvania when I swear not one word was uttered by UK defenders, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But in the second half against Maryland and against Duke and, most notably, against Notre Dame, it was brutal – especially since UK went long periods without being able to score. If this team wants to go to the Final Four, there has to be greater responsibility taken by every player on the defensive end of the floor. It can’t be just one guy or just the centers or just the guards. Literally every person who checks into the game has to be completely invested in being a great team defender.

The good news is that when they finally get clicking on defense – and they most certainly will at some point – they’ll be halfway toward their goal of being great. Problem is, it’s the other side of the floor where UK is really lacking an identity and appears to be painfully lost right now.

In South Bend, the offense was as bad as it’s been in any single game during John Calipari’s tenure at UK. Only the 2011 Final Four game with UConn jumps out as being comparable and, not surprisingly, the 55 points scored in that contest was the previous low of the Calipari era for tonight. Again, give Notre Dame some credit, but the offensive struggles of Kentucky had more to do with Kentucky than anything. The Cats are a team who should be able to create at least 15-20 points per game off of the fast break, but it’s nearly impossible to do that when you’re defense isn’t creating turnovers or forcing bad shots. Basically, it makes you Notre Dame and forces you to be effcient and effective in the half-court, something that’s often difficult for young teams.

Against the Irish, that pressure was placed on the half-court offense, which looked completely ineffective and, worse, unsure of who should be taking shots. And that was just against man-to-man. The zone offense was even worse and consisted of passing around the perimeter, save for when Nerlens Noel caught it at the free throw line and treated it like a hot potato, kicking it immediately back out to a guard.

Unselfishness is a beautiful thing and if you spend any time listening to John Calipari, you’re bound to hear that Anthony Davis took the fifth-most shots on last year’s team and that he preaches “shared sacrifice”. It’s a beautiful thing, it really is. But when you’re over-thinking to the point that your unselfishness becomes passivenes detrimental to the success of the team, then it’s a problem. To me, that was the case against Notre Dame and as each player appeared to think themselves out of their natural instinct to just attack, it left them desperate for the support of the only two players who’ve shown their capable of providing that type of assertiveness and leaderhip. And, to put it simply, they just didn’t get anything from them. Nothing at all.

Thursday night, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress played like freshmen. Not John Calipari freshmen or UK freshmen, but just plain old inexperienced, first-year players. It’s hard to get too upset with them for that, I suppose, but they are at Kentucky because they’ve accepted the responsibility of being freshmen in name only. On nights like they had in South Bend, it’s imperative that they rise to the occasion.

Poythress, who was saddled by foul trouble in the first half, took only one shot in the game. One. What’s worse is that he grabbed only two rebounds in his 23 minutes and you could probably convince a good portion of the fans watching that he didn’t even make the trip to South Bend. Just two days ago, there was talk of him being a potential #1 overall pick in the draft because he’d finally realized just how powerful he is and understood what it meant to be a beast every second that he was on the floor. My guess is that talk has cooled slightly this evening, though a couple of strong performances can wipe Thursday night away. You can look back in UK’s recent history for precedent.

During his freshman season and for the first half of his sophomore season, Terrence Jones struggled to find ways to impact the game when he wasn’t getting buckets or when he was thrown off early by fouls. Like Poythress, he started out strong in his freshman campaign and when he struggled, it appeared to be due to thinking too much. Just play the game. It’s what you’re good at doing, Alex. That understanding is learned in time at the college level and Poythress will most certainly get there at some point, but the problem is this UK team needs him to get there quickly. And that’s because there’s really only one other person who has the capablity of being an emotional leader on the court. That’s Archie Goodwin – and he put together his worst game of the season.

What I found so impressive about Goodwin entering this season wasn’t just his explosiveness on offense, but his willingness to assert himself as the leader of the team before the season even started. At UK Media Day, he flat-out said this was his team. Every player we asked said Archie Goodwin was the leader. And for the most part this season, he’s done just enough for us to believe it to be the case. But great leadership isn’t forged in victories or when the ball is bouncing your way. It’s asserted when your team is on its heels and when the players around you are in desperate need of calming confidence and guidance. Against Notre Dame, they didn’t get that from Goodwin.

As the Irish started to build their lead and Manti Te’o and 9,000 of his friends started to get louder and louder, Goodwin became less and less stable for the Cats. When UK needed someone to slow them down on offense, Goodwin rushed and forced bad passes. When the Cats desperately needed a basket or free throws to break the momentum, the usually aggressive Goodwin deferred to Nerlens Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein. It was a far cry from the player who helped UK get past Maryland by getting to the line for 11 free throws when his jumper wasn’t falling and it showed just how desperate this team needs him to be a leader on the floor. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and DeAndre Liggins aren’t walking through that door. Kyle Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow, Nerlens Noel, Julius Mays or anyone else can’t fill that role. It has to be Archie. My guess is that after this game, it’s all the more clear to not just him, but his teammates as well.

So what does it all mean? Well, as Cal would put it, “This is a November 29 team.” If there was any uncertainty as to where they need to improve in order to reach their goals in the spring, Notre Dame made it extremely clear. Great teams – championship caliber teams – respond when they’re challenged and their resolve is in question. The Cats have an opportunity to do just that when Baylor comes to Lexington in just 36 hours. And if they rise to the occasion, we can all be like Mike and feel a lot better about where they’ll be in January and February. After all, it’s just November and that’s not when championships are won.

Just don’t tell Notre Dame students. I’d hate it if they felt foolish for rushing the court after beating a team that was a one-point underdog.

Be sure to watch KSTV Friday for a full recap of the Notre Dame loss and a preview of UK’s game with Baylor.


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