With 13:48 left in Thursday night’s game at Vanderbilt, Kentucky was up 47-31 on the Commodores.
It was the kind of performance — dominating at times, inconsistent at others — that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Wildcats. But regardless of the issues that Vanderbilt has had this season, the bottom line was that Kentucky was getting ready to win an SEC road game, more-or-less a first for everyone on this roster.
But then Vanderbilt switched to a zone. And Kentucky completely lost the ability to function offensively.
The Wildcats missed their next 12 shots. Vanderbilt scored the next 18 points. By the time that Ryan Harrow finally hit a three to give UK the lead back at the 4:58 mark, it was quite clear that this was no longer going to be a laugher. The team that lost by 17 to Marist would be giving Kentucky everything they could handle.
Kentucky would eventually survive 60-58 — thanks, in large part, to a bucket with 17.3 seconds left from Nerlens Noel that quite clearly came after the shot clock had expired — but some wins mean more than others.
Let’s ignore, for a second, the fact that Kentucky was completely and utterly lost against the zone. They needed to hit their last three field goals just to finish 4-17 from the floor against the Vanderbilt zone. They turned the ball over seven times during that stretch.
At the same time, they got abused on the defensive end of the floor because Vanderbilt targeted the defensively-challenged Kyle Wiltjer. But UK needed Wiltjer on the floor because of his zone-busting ability.
While Wiltjer clearly has value on the offensive end, if he can’t improve defensively John Calipari will have a decision to make: either play the sophomore knowing that he’s a matchup opponents will look (and be able) to exploit, or have one of his better offensive weapons sit because of those defensive issues.
“So now I told him: ‘You don’t think anybody was watching the tape, right? No one watched that game? Don’t think every team now is going to go right at you. Good luck.’ And I think he can do it, but he’s got to make his mind up that, ‘I’m not settling for this.’ There’s a couple plays where he broke down; then just rebound. He didn’t rebound, and they scored on him. I mean, fight man. Come on. Where is it?”
And given the value that Calipari places on the defensive end of the floor, there’s a better chance of Wiltjer sitting than Kentucky simply deciding that they’ll accept his defensive struggles in exchange for points on the other end.
“Figure it out. You either don’t stay in the game or figure it out. Fight or we’ll figure it out,” Calipari said according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Add to this the prolonged slump that Alex Poythress has been mired in and that opened the door for Vanderbilt to scrap their way back into a game that should have been a blowout.
Another concern here is that Kentucky doesn’t have much room to spare in terms of the NCAA tournament. This win was just their third RPI top 215 win this season (Maryland and Eastern Michigan), and given how weak the SEC is this season — there just aren’t going to be many chances for the Cats to pick up RPI boosting wins — we could be looking at a situation where UK is sitting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed.
And if they slip up against a Vanderbilt or a South Carolina or a Mississippi State?
I won’t go there.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.