The projections say this Kentucky basketball season might get worse before it gets better

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Mired in a three-game home losing streak and having dropped four of its last six overall, this Kentucky basketball season has taken an unexpected turn over the past three weeks.

And things might get even worse before they get better.

The Wildcats head into this week with a 16-7 record, a 6-4 mark in the SEC and just eight games remaining in their regular season. Don’t be surprised if the struggle continues.

The major college basketball predictive websites KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com are both projecting the Cats to go 4-4 in those remaining games. If that happens, Kentucky will go into next month’s SEC Tournament with a 20-11 overall record and a 10-8 showing in the league, a finish that would leave the Wildcats a whole lot closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble than the 1 seed that seemed such a realistic possibility a mere three weeks ago.

Both of those websites’ projections have Kentucky beating Ole Miss on Tuesday night, winning at LSU next week and then defeating Arkansas and Vanderbilt to finish off the home schedule. But both sites have the Cats losing Saturday at Auburn, dropping a game to Alabama next weekend in Rupp Arena and then getting beat in road games at Mississippi State and Tennessee.

If that plays out as projected, Kentucky will end up suffering its most regular-season losses in any season of the John Calipari era other than the 2020-21 campaign, when the Cats finished 9-16 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A 10-8 mark in the SEC would be tied with the 2017-18 season for the second-worst in Calipari’s 15 years in charge of the program.

Obviously, the SEC is better in basketball now than it’s possibly ever been — UK’s NIT team in 2013 went 12-6 in the league, it’s worth reminding — but this is the conference Kentucky plays in, and a 20-11 finish would be quite a comedown from the expectations of a few weeks ago.

Any hope of avoiding such a fate rests on Kentucky’s defense getting better, but time is running out on the realistic belief of that happening. According to the numbers, the Wildcats are only getting worse, despite specific emphasis on that side of the ball over the past several weeks.

Kentucky guard Adou Thiero had 15 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots in Kentucky’s 89-85 loss to Gonzaga on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Adou Thiero had 15 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots in Kentucky’s 89-85 loss to Gonzaga on Saturday in Rupp Arena.

UK slipped outside of the KenPom top 100 in defensive efficiency not too long ago, and it dropped from No. 104 nationally on that list the morning after its win over Vanderbilt last week to No. 124 in the ratings following an 89-85 loss to Gonzaga on Saturday night. The Cats are even worse in the Torvik ratings: No. 143 in defensive efficiency.

The story of the Gonzaga game was the same as in previous losses (and wins): trouble with rebounding and multiple failings on the defensive end, notably in pick-and-roll situations.

“I think our pick-and-roll was …,” UK’s Adou Thiero started, before pausing to search for a relatively diplomatic finish Saturday night. He settled on this: “It can be better.”

Thiero then laid out the areas where Kentucky’s players failed in pick-and-roll scenarios — there were many — concluding that the Cats need to go back and watch film, take pride in getting better at that aspect of the game. “And change,” he said.

Indeed, as bad as Kentucky has looked defending pick and rolls this season (and in other recent seasons), some of the Cats can pinpoint their exact failures immediately after games. Thiero and others have said the plan is sound, the Cats just aren’t following through in the moment.

“We just gotta not let them get to their spots and listen to the scout,” Thiero said. “If we’re supposed to front a guy, front him. If he likes to go middle, send him baseline. That person baseline has to come double-team and then get in the rotation. I think that’s just mistakes that we made throughout the game.”

They keep happening.

“That’s one of the things that we talk about with a young group,” UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua said Monday. “There’s a game slippage that’s happening, and not just in one particular person. And at different points in the game. And so, collectively, everyone has to stay assignment sound, understanding, executing what the game plan is. And it’s evident by the conversations that you guys have with them postgame that they are aware of what the game plan was and should be, and it’s (another) thing to go out there and execute it.”

Calipari interrupted a question about pick-and-roll failures Saturday night that included a mention of subbing in and out the team’s trio of 7-footers — “Trying anything,” the head coach conceded — but ending on a positive note.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “And you’re talking about young players. You’re talking about kind of going off script a little bit at times. But, they’ll get it.”

They now have just four weeks to get it, with relatively little practice time compared to earlier in the season, and against mostly stiff competition. Five of the remaining teams on UK’s schedule are projected to make the NCAA Tournament, starting with Ole Miss on Tuesday night.

Of course, Kentucky has still not played at full strength this season, and much has been made of Tre Mitchell’s absence — out with a back injury — the past two games. He was especially missed against Gonzaga, which grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, beat UK on the boards 43-31 and battered the Cats physically, scoring on almost every possession down the stretch.

“Tre’s been a warrior for us throughout the season,” Antigua said, noting that Mitchell was playing through the injury for much of the season before finally taking a break last week. Antigua said his veteran presence and ability to calm his younger teammates was also missed.

“It’s very different,” fellow fifth-year player Antonio Reeves said after Saturday’s loss of playing without Mitchell. “He brings some juice. He brings the rebounding. Facilitating. And being (more of) a veteran team. We kind of miss that when he got hurt.”

Mitchell leads UK in minutes per game this season, and he’s fourth in the SEC in rebounding. He’s second in the league — behind only Auburn’s Johni Broome — in defensive rebounding, and it’s fair to think that his presence Saturday could have been the difference in such a close game with so many rebounding failures throughout.

Kentucky’s offense — electric as it is — has also sometimes looked a little out of sorts without Mitchell on the court. Gonzaga coach Mark Few independently brought up Mitchell’s absence when talking after Saturday’s game and looking ahead to the rest of UK’s season.

“I see a lot in them. … I see a lot,” Few said. “I thought I saw two really, really good teams out there battling and making plays at the highest level, and I think they’re going to be fine. They have skill. They have athleticism. I think they need to get healthy. If they get Tre Mitchell back, that adds that skilled 4.”

Few added that, with Mitchell on the court: “the schemes change dramatically, and it puts you in a lot of difficult situations.”

Getting Mitchell back to something approaching full health will help Kentucky, and his rebounding ability should limit second chances, but this UK team still has a long way to go and a short time to get there defensively.

With NCAA Tournament time getting closer, it’s becoming more clear that — while Kentucky needs to get gritty in battling for loose balls and making hustle plays — the Cats also need to find a way to consistently stick to basic defensive principles for entire possessions.

Anything less, and this season isn’t going to end the way the Wildcats had hoped.

“We still have eight conference games left,” Antigua said. “And there’s a lot of basketball still to be played. But we have to make sure that we’re doing the things that we need to do to secure defensive stops and to execute the game plan.”

Tuesday

Mississippi at No. 22 Kentucky

When: 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Mississippi 18-5 (5-5 SEC), Kentucky 16-7 (6-4)

Series: Kentucky leads 110-14

Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-66 on Jan. 21, 2023, in Oxford, Mississippi

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