Kentucky loss to Bama shows how far UK basketball has fallen

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Game day: No. 7 Alabama 78, Kentucky 52

Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and Kentucky.com’s coverage of Saturday’s men’s basketball game between Kentucky and Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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Kentucky’s problems on the basketball court are far from fixed.

“This one, I don’t know if I want to watch the tape,” UK Coach John Calipari said as he settled into his seat at the postgame press conference Saturday afternoon.

It won’t make for pleasant viewing.

Calipari’s Cats had just been embarrassed by No. 7-ranked Alabama to the tune of a 78-52 final margin. The Tide’s lead never narrowed below 20 points over the final 12 and a half minutes of the game. The box score was a horror show, and it was backed up by the play on the court.

What went wrong for the Wildcats this afternoon in Tuscaloosa?

Asked that question, the team’s leading scorer, Antonio Reeves, first mentioned transition defense. “Bad,” he said. Then he mentioned halfcourt defense. “Bad,” he said. Then he paused, briefly, considering the question in a grander sense. What had gone wrong?

“It was everything, really,” Reeves concluded.

Points for honesty. There weren’t many more points to be found for the Cats in Coleman Coliseum.

Reeves scored 20, the last of them coming on a three-pointer to beat the buzzer and set Kentucky’s losing margin at 26 instead of 29.

Point guard Sahvir Wheeler had 15 points. No other Wildcat scored more than four.

The Cats had just seven assists on 21 baskets. They made just 21 shots on 73 attempts. They managed just 0.776 points per possession. They managed to go 3-for-17 on shots that the official scorekeeper categorized as layups.

They simply got beat, every which way they could.

The biggest shocker out of this 26-point loss was the play of Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year and the one constant sign of competence amid Kentucky’s struggles so far this season.

“A really good player looked like he can’t play,” Calipari said. “What is that?!”

Tshiebwe was beaten so badly by Alabama big man Charles Bediako in the early going that Calipari benched his star player less than four minutes into the game. By that point, UK was already down 11-2, and the Tide’s 7-footer had six points, brutalizing his Kentucky counterpart on every possession.

“We decided to attack him early with ball screens,” Bama Coach Nate Oats said. “I don’t think he’s very good guarding ball screens. We got behind him, I think, three times right out of the gate.”

Tshiebwe went to the bench. Less than a minute later, freshman star Cason Wallace picked up two fouls and joined him there. And, amazingly, the Cats came back.

With the biggest star in college basketball looking on, Kentucky turned an 11-2 deficit into a three-point game. As soon as Tshiebwe returned, Bediako got behind him for another easy dunk, and Calipari lost it on the sideline, quickly pointing freshman center Ugonna Onyenso towards the scorer’s table.

Tshiebwe, who played 40, 37 and 40 minutes over UK’s last three games, was taken out of the game on three separate occasions in the first half alone. His final line: four points, six rebounds, four turnovers in 23 minutes. He was 1-for-7 from the floor.

That’s the national player of the year.

“Didn’t play that way tonight,” Calipari said. “But none of us did, and I didn’t coach that way. We all got beat. I got beat, and our team did.”

More points for honesty.

Wallace finished 1-for-13 from the floor and 0-for-6 from three-point range. Jacob Toppin played good defense on Alabama star Brandon Miller in the early going, but he also struggled mightily on the other end. Toppin was 1-for-10 on field goals.

The combined offensive performance of those three starters: nine points, and 3-for-30 from the field.

“We played better when they weren’t in,” Calipari said of his starting lineup. “Well that can’t be who we are. There’s no way. And the other guys can play in spots, but when you try to play them 12 (straight) minutes? They’re gonna break down. They haven’t played that much.”

The UK coach said that when his team was trying to compete without the guys they usually depend on, things got a whole lot more difficult.

“Now, all of a sudden, we’re not Kentucky,” he said. “Those guys – they gotta perform.”

Alabama fans near the court made sure to add insult to incompetence.

At one point in the second half, students near the UK bench chanted: “Cal to Texas!” — a reference to the job opening with the Longhorns and the national speculation that Calipari might be a top candidate.

A little later, another chant echoed around the arena: “NIT! NIT! NIT!”

Yikes.

“Kentucky’s not gonna go to the NIT,” Oats said afterwards. “They’re gonna be an NCAA Tournament team. … They’ve got plenty of talent over there.”

Oats’ optimism regarding these Wildcats isn’t backed up by the numbers.

The manner in which Kentucky lost Saturday will likely put them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble when the next batch of bracketology updates are posted. The Cats were already trending in that direction, and they limped back home Saturday with an 0-4 record in Quad 1 games — a major NCAA barometer for a team’s strength. They’ve lost all four of those games by double digits, and this 26-point margin was the widest so far.

In fact, this was the worst Kentucky had ever been beaten by Alabama, a series that has featured more than 150 games and began in 1923 – exactly one century ago.

The Cats’ previous worst loss to the Tide was a 25-point defeat during the 1989-90 season.

That was Rick Pitino’s first year in Lexington, and that Kentucky team featured a scraped-together roster in its first season under probation. This Kentucky team was ranked No. 4 nationally in the preseason, a seemingly constructed group of talented players at every position, many of them veterans of college basketball.

Calipari has made it clear throughout these unexpected struggles that he still thinks he has all the pieces to make a run in March. “It’s all fixable,” he said many times after Tuesday’s too-close-for-comfort victory over Louisiana State. He didn’t stray from the Saturday narrative, and his players haven’t either.

“We’ve been through this stuff already,” Reeves said. “This is not our first go-around. We just have to keep pushing, keep our heads up… and figure it out.”

There’s still time to do that, of course. Kentucky has seven Quad 1 games left on its schedule. The final day of the regular season is still two months away. But, to this point, the Cats haven’t come anywhere close to matching those lofty preseason expectations. And Saturday’s performance indicated they’re not particularly close to doing so.

Once his press conference had concluded, Calipari lightly slapped the front of the podium with both hands, got to his feet, and stated the obvious.

“All right,” he said. “A lot of work to do, guys.”

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari watches his team play against Alabama on Saturday at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Next game

South Carolina at Kentucky

When: 7 pm Tuesday

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: South Carolina 7-7 (0-1 SEC), Kentucky 10-5 (1-2)

Series: Kentucky leads 54-13

Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-76 on Feb. 8, 2022, in Columbia, SC

This story was originally published January 7, 2023 5:06 PM.

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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