Analysis: With Florida Loss, How Much Longer Can Age Excuse Kentucky?
Rupp Arena was at its most intimidating Saturday—24,425 fans were there, the sixth-most in arena history, and the crowd was impressive in volume and not just … volume—and the No. 14 Wildcats spent the first half playing some of their best defense of the season.
Still, No. 3 Florida has won 16 straight and the Wildcats weren’t quite the force of nature it seems necessary to hand the Gators their first SEC loss. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin was electric in the second half, finishing with 23 points after a five-point first half. Florida won 69-59.
It was Kentucky’s first home loss of the season, snapping a 22-game home winning streak dating back to last season. Kentucky is now 81-3 at home under John Calipari.
James Young led the Wildcats with 19 points, and Andrew Harrison had 20 before fouling out with about a minute to play.
Calipari was assessed a technical foul with 8:14 to play by an official standing about 40 feet away during a dead ball. At the time, Kentucky was leading 48-47; Wilbekin made the two technical free throws, and Casey Prather scored a bucket on the ensuing possession, a four-point swing from which Kentucky would never fully recover.
The Wildcats tied the game at 53-53 with six minutes to play but never took the lead after that. They were scoreless the final two minutes of the game.
After another loss chalked up to youth, how much longer can age excuse UK?
For 19 wins this season, Kentucky has been talented. For six losses, it’s been young. The two descriptors seem mutually exclusive in the narrative surrounding all that is Kentucky basketball—though recent outings against Mississippi State and Auburn seem to suggest they can coexist—but the thought is, young will eventually evaporate once the team that led No. 3 Florida 31-28 at halftime can figure out how to not turn into the team that eventually lost that game 69-59.
Florida’s senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was magnificent in the second half Saturday, and he finished with 23 points and two assists. Senior forward Casey Prather was 8 of 9 from the floor and led the Gators with 24 points. Senior power forward Patric Young had several important buckets in the second half, and he finished with 10 points.
That word senior popped up a lot in that last paragraph, and it popped up a lot in post-game interviews. It had to be noted because the way Florida played in the second half demanded it. It was composed even though Kentucky took a seven-point lead with 11 minutes to play, and Rupp Arena’s crowd of 24,425 was the sixth-largest in the building’s history, and those 24,425 made the arena as loud as it had been in a few years, and Kentucky’s defense in the first half was likely the best it had played all season, and nobody was in deep foul trouble to suggest the Wildcats couldn’t repeat that after halftime.
As Florida thrived, Kentucky did not. Lack of experience was brought up, and Calipari was one to buy in.
“They were just a little too experienced down the stretch,” he said.
Calipari has said all season long that at some point, his team will learn how to not be young anymore, lamenting at the same time how young his team is in that moment. It’s happened after each time Kentucky has lost this season, neatly spread out over the season’s three-or-so months so far:
NOV. 12, 78-74 LOSS TO MICHIGAN STATE:“It’s all new. This is the first game where I coached where we’ve got to change in midstream, and that’s what I did. For the second half, I just said, ‘Here’s how we’re playing. We’re not doing this. This is what we’re doing.’ We came out of a couple timeouts, typical freshmen, one guy’s not listening. Wanted to strangle him, you know. Not literally, please.”
DEC. 6, 67-62 LOSS TO BAYLOR: “We had a chance. We’re up, and again, they get the ball next to the goal, and we foul twice. I’ve got to see the tape of it, but that gets them back in the game. We were ready to pull away. But we’re not ready for that yet, not against a good team. We’re just not.”
DEC. 14, 82-77 LOSS TO NORTH CAROLINA: “My hope was we would be, like, the best team in the last 12 years. Reality says, until they get knocked in the teeth a couple of times and then accept responsibility for what happened—like, if you played a guy and he kicked you, he just was way better than you? You have to accept that, say, ‘You know what, he outworked me today. I didn’t get a rebound, I didn’t—whatever may be the case.’ Like I said, they deserved to win the game, They played well. They fought like crazy. They played physical. I thought we did enough to keep ourselves in the game, and they gave us a chance to win.”
JAN. 14, 87-85 OVERTIME LOSS TO ARKANSAS: “They played well. I’m proud of my team that they didn’t quit; they kept playing. We executed (the play) that gives us a chance when we went down three. Stuff that we’ve worked on, we did, we got the shot we wanted. Just, the last shot, the kid watched. My guy watched. The guy ran by him and dunked it. Well, he’s a freshman, and that’s what freshmen do. The same thing on the side out-of-bounds. That’s what freshmen do: throw it right before half court.”
JAN. 28, 87-82 LOSS TO LSU: “When the other team outworks you, this is what it looks like. It was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16. It could have been 30. We fought to get back in it. We got back to where we were fine. We came out the second half and did the same thing. I had to call an immediate timeout. This team is in progress. It’s all about the process. The process we are at right now is will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be. We didn’t show it tonight. Now, we go to the next game and continue to work on what we need to work on for us.”
FEB. 15, 69-59 LOSS TO FLORIDA: “We lost to a good team. I’m not happy. We lost to a good team. But we had our chance,s and we’re not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that. So we’ve got to understand and listen and not blame each other. Take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it: ‘The guy outplayed me.’”
Six losses spread out over three months (and three days) of season have provided Calipari an opportunity to reflect on the state of his team—still, it should be noted, the youngest in the country by a considerable margin according to KenPom.com’s experience statistic—and though three months would seem like quite a while in basketball terms, many of the same general problems of closing out close games still seem to malign the Wildcats. Whether Calipari were to admit that in a public forum is irrelevant. Whether he (or, more likely, his players) can fix it is all that matters, and it seems the way it will have to happen is that a group of young players will have to finally put into practice the concepts preached to them for going on three months and six losses.
Photo: John Calipari/KY Forward