It happens all the time.
A good team will go on the road in league play, take a loss to a team they probably shouldn’t lose to and suddenly we all will starting talking about why this team stinks and how we knew it all along.
It happened with Duke when they lost at Boston College. It happened with Villanova when they lost at Butler. It happened with Michigan State when they lost at Ohio State. It happened with Arizona when they lost at Colorado.
And it happened last night when Kentucky lost at a rebuilding South Carolina team.
The only truly surprising part of Kentucky’s 76-68 loss to the Gamecocks was that it came after Kentucky held a 14-point second half lead. South Carolina has never exactly been known as an offensive juggernaut and, this year, they are still adapting to playing without Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. They closed the game on a 36-14 run just three days after winning a game where they shot 27.1 percent from the field.
If there is a concern here, it’s that Kentucky collapsed.
“This looked like a bunch of freshman playing,” John Calipari said afterward. “First time this year,” later adding that, “there’s an unwarranted arrogance that when we get up, we look really good. ‘I’m really good. I’m going to do what I’m choosing to do and I’m not going to listen.’ That’s what happened. It started rolling and all of a sudden we couldn’t stop it.”
Coach Cal is notorious for speaking to his players through press conferences. He knows that everything is said is going to get plastered all over social media and every Kentucky website, particularly after a loss like this. He knows it will pop up on his players’ twitter feed or when they are watching Sportscenter, so taking what he says publicly with that in mind is important.
And while there is some merit to what he’s saying, it’s also important to remember these three things:
- Kentucky is not only the youngest team in America, they were playing without their starting point guard (Quade Green) while trying to acclimate yet another freshman (Jarred Vanderbilt) into the rotation. Vanderbilt saw minutes at the point last night. Brad Calipari saw minutes, too.
- All of that happened against a team that just so happens to be one of the nation’s toughest and most physical defenses. South Carolina may lack some of the talent they had last season but they are still tough, strong kids that play for Frank Martin and are never going to back down. I guarantee there is nothing the kids on that roster love more than landing a shot against a team full of cocky future lottery picks.
- I’m going to say it slowly, so pay attention: Kentucky. Is. Not. That Good. We know this. They are ranked 21st in the AP Poll. They are rated 29th on KenPom. They don’t have a star. The only reason anyone is freaking out about this game is because of the name on the front of the jersey. If Auburn or Tennessee or Clemson blew a 14-point lead on the road against South Carolina we would chalk it up to a pretty good team falling victim to that home court advantage that is so prevalent in college hoops.
We will all save ourselves quite a bit of time and energy if we just accept what has become obvious: This is not a typical Kentucky team in the Cal era.
There is still Final Four upside should Cal figure this thing out, and with the way things are going in the SEC, a conference title is certainly still within reach.
But Kentucky is going to take some more lumps in league play. They’re going to end up getting a seed somewhere in that 5-7 range. Getting to a Sweet 16 would be good for them. A Final Four isn’t an impossibility, not with the upside on this roster, but dropping out of the dance before the final weekend certainly wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.
That’s just who they are.
Yesterday, we took a look at whether or not Duke’s issues on the defense end of the floor will affect whether or not they can win a national title, and barring a dramatic turnaround over the final three months of the season, the answer appears to be yes.
No one with a defense that ranks lower than Duke’s currently does has ever reached the national title game, and only two that are in the same vicinity have even played on the final Monday of the season.
But Duke is far from the only good team with major red flags this season, so today we are going to take a look which of the other national title contenders compare favorably with past Final Four teams.
(All the data in these charts come from KenPom.com. They are the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for each team, from prior to the start of the NCAA tournament as well as from the end of the season. We cannot use the adjusted efficiency margin because that data does not translate across seasons. KenPom’s database only goes back to the 2001-2002 season.)
Since 2002, just 13 of the 64 Final Four teams have had an offensive efficiency ranking outside the top 30 when the NCAA tournament began. Only four of those teams reached the national title game, while 2014 UConn is the only one to win a ring with an offense that wasn’t among the best in the country:
This season, there are a handful of top ten teams – teams that are largely considered among the best in the country – that are ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency, including a pair of Big 12 title challengers.
Some of these teams you would expect to be on here. Virginia hasn’t lost a step defensively this year, but without a killer like Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon, they aren’t among the elite on the offensive side of the ball. The same can be said for Cincinnati, Texas Tech and West Virginia. We know they win with their defense.
The surprise is Michigan.
John Beilein is widely regarded as one of college basketball’s best offensive tacticians, and to see him put together a team that is winning with their defense is … well, it is weird. He and Brad Stevens are the only two coaches to take teams to a title game with a defense that ranked outside of the top 40.
I know that the saying is “defense wins championships,” but that doesn’t hold water in the college basketball realm. While there have only been 11 Final Four teams that ranked outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the tournament, three of them won the national title and three more reached the title game.
Put another way, it’s easier to win in March with a great offense and future NBA players than it is to win with a great defense that can sometimes struggle to score.
The one difference here is that the floor is not as low.
North Carolina’s 2009 team is the lowest-rated defense at 39th to win a title and they had four players still in NBA rotations today and two more than saw time on an NBA roster as some point.
Where this discussion gets really interesting is when looking at the teams that do not have great defenses this season.
Duke, who currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, is the team that we always talk about, but there are nine teams that have been ranked in the top five of the AP Poll at some point this season are currently outside the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric: Wichita State, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, Duke, Arizona and Arizona State:
So who can actually win a title this season?
Of the last 16 national champs, 12 have ranked in the top ten of either offensive or defensive efficiency and 15 of the 16 have ranked in the top 20. The only team to win a national title while entering the NCAA tournament ranked outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency was Kemba Walker’s 2011 UConn team, and they ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively.
Remember, this can all change rather quickly. If you look at the difference in the pre-tournament ratings vs. the post-tournament ratings below, you can see how much getting hot for a six-game stretch can change things, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
So this is a snapshot of how things stand today. In a two week’s time, these numbers could end up being irrelevant.
With that in mind, here are the six teams that – as of today – ranks in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
For reference, here are the rankings for every national champion of the last 16 years.
When Stephen Curry was a freshman at Davidson, in one of the first games of his college career, he turned the ball over eight times in the first half of a game at Eastern Michigan. Head coach Bob McKillop toyed with the idea of benching his star freshman, instead opting to turn him loose again in the second half.
Curry scored 13 second half points – to go along with five turnovers – and then went out and dropped 32 in his next game.
Those 15 points and 13 turnovers were his first career double-double, and I’m not sure that he’s slowed down since.
I say all that to say this: It is a minor miracle that the first time that Trae Young looked mortal came on January 16th.
No. 4 Oklahoma went into Manhattan on Tuesday night and got worked over by Kansas State. The Sooners ended up losing 87-69. They trailed by 14 points within the first 10 minutes of the game. Young finished with 20 points and six assists – numbers that would be phenomenal for literally any other point guard on the road in conference play – but he shot just 8-for-21 from the floor, finished 2-for-10 from three and turned the ball over 12 times.
In a vacuum, this performance really wouldn’t be anything to worry about. Young is Oklahoma’s offense. When he has a bad game, the team is going to struggle. That’s the risk of relying this much on one player. It is that simple, and the idea that we should expect a freshman point guard to make it the entirety of conference play in a league as difficult as the Big 12 is ludicrous. He’s going to throw up a dud every now and again, and that’s what happened on Tuesday.
“I played terrible,” Young said. “I blame a lot of this loss on me.”
Where this becomes a concern for the Sooners is that the turnover problem that Young dealt with on Tuesday is not exactly an isolated incident. Young is leading the nation averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, and while that number is inflated by opportunity – Young plays in the nation’s third-fastest offense with the highest-usage rate we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era – his turnover rate of 19.2 is somewhat concerning. For comparison’s sake, Jalen Brunson’s turnover rate is 10.5. Joel Berry II’s is 11.7. Devonte’ Graham’s is 17.0.
The biggest worry is that the number keeps rising. Young has set a career-high in turnovers in each of the last two games, three of the last four games and four times total since the start of Big 12 play. There are a lot of good coaches, good teams and great point guards in the Big 12. Teams may have started to solve the riddle, which means that Lon Kruger and Young are going to have to start making some adjustments.
And that will come.
Kruger is one of the best pure basketball coaches in the business.
He’ll find an answer.
Which is why the most disappointing part about this loss is that it puts Oklahoma in a tough spot in regards to an outright Big 12 regular season title. With how strong the top of the conference is, losing games against anyone outside of the top four is a major disadvantage, and Oklahoma is now the only team amongst that group – West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas included – that has lost one.
But credit where credit is due: Bruce Weber put together a game-plan to stymie Young, got 24 points and five assists out of Barry Brown and 21 points, seven boards and seven assists out of Dean Wade.
The Wildcats kicked Sooner tail on Tuesday, and in the process, earned themselves a win that is going to carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari thought his freshmen looked like freshmen for the first time all season. South Carolina’s Chris Silva continued to look like a major force in the Southeastern Conference who led the Gamecocks’ dramatic second-half comeback against the Wildcats.
Silva tied his career high he set earlier this month with 27 points as South Carolina (12-6, 3-3 SEC) rallied from 14 points down in the second half to top No. 18 Kentucky 76-68 on Tuesday night.
Silva “was the difference,” Calipari said. “He manhandled everyone we put on him.”
It didn’t look like it would have an impact midway through the second half when Kevin Knox’s short jumper with 12:28 to go put the Wildcats ahead 54-40. But that’s when South Carolina, fueled by the powerful, 6-foot-9 Silva, got going and outscored Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) 36-14 the rest of the way to pull off the upset.
Silva had 12 points in that stretch to lift the Gamecocks.
As well as Silva played, Kentucky’s vaunted group of freshmen began trying to make the splashy, dramatic play instead of the smart one, Calipari said. As South Carolina gradually cut into the margin, the Wildcats shrunk from the challenge.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of young guys that don’t know how to grind it,” Calipari said.
That was evident when Wesley Myers’ driving layup tied the game at 65-all and he followed that with a second straight layup for the Gamecocks’ first lead of the second half, this one ruled good when Kentucky’s Nick Richards was called for goaltending.
Maik Kotsar made four straight foul shots to give South Carolina a 71-67 lead and Kentucky could not respond.
“We weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying,” Knox acknowledged.
The Gamecocks broke a four-game losing streak to Kentucky, which managed just three points over the final 6 minutes.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked with Silva at halftime, urging him to go straight up and over Kentucky’s defenders instead of putting up shots away from the basket. “He told me to go strong and finish,” Silva said.
All the Gamecocks seemed to follow Silva’s lead.
“Our guys took ownership,” Martin said as the Gamecocks won for third time in four games after opening SEC play 0-2.
Frank Booker added 18 points for South Carolina.
Knox led Kentucky with 21 points. No other Wildcat had more than 10 points.
Kentucky: The Wildcats had little consistency with their shooting touch. But their relentless style helped them claw back from an early 19-12 deficit to lead 37-34. The active Kentucky lineup pushed the pace and made the Gamecocks pay for putting them on the free throw line, going 17 of 22 in the first 20 minutes. Things changed down the stretch as Kentucky’s freshman-heavy team struggled to keep up with the Gamecocks. The Wildcats were just 6 of 14 from the free throw line after the break.
South Carolina: When the Gamecocks miss shots, they’re in trouble. After starting the game 7 of 9 from the field, South Carolina missed 18 of its final 21 shots of the opening half. That helped turn a seven-point lead into a 37-34 deficit at the break. Shooting woes have plagued the team much of the season. In fact, the Gamecocks shot just 27 percent from the field last time out and somehow pulled out a 64-57 victory at Georgia on Saturday. The Gamecocks shot just 37.1 percent in this win.
VANDERBILT’S DEBUT: Highly regarded 6-9 freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who was out with a left foot injury, finally saw his first action as he came in off the bench against South Carolina. And Vanderbilt was rusty after not playing this season. He missed his only attempt in the opening half and tipped in a ball for a South Carolina basket while fighting for a rebound. Vanderbilt finished with six points and five rebounds. “I thought he was pretty good first time out,” Calipari said.
KNOX’S STREAK-SAVING SHOT
The Wildcats were 1 of 11 on 3-pointers and the one made 3 by Knox ran Kentucky’s string of consecutive games with a basket from behind the arc to 1,031. Knox’s shot came with 7 minutes to go.
Kentucky starts a two-game home stand against Florida on Saturday.
South Carolina faces its second straight ranked opponent in No. 21 Tennessee at home Saturday.
1. KENTUCKY FALLS AS JARRED VANDERBILT MAKES HIS LONG-AWAITED DEBUT
Having missed No. 18 Kentucky’s first 17 games due to a foot injury, Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt made his debut Tuesday night against South Carolina. While Vanderbilt showed some flashes of the skill that made him one of the top recruits in the 2017 class, it was clear that there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off. But the return of Vanderbilt was not enough to help Kentucky avoid defeat, as South Carolina picked up the 76-68 victory thanks in large part to Chris Silva.
Silva, who’s been thrust into a position of leadership due to how much South Carolina lost from last year’s Final Four squad, was the best player on the floor Tuesday night. Silva scored a game-high 27 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, shooting 9-for-17 from the field and 9-for-13 at the foul line. Outside of Nick Richards, who tallied 12 points and four rebounds before fouling out, Kentucky did not offer up much resistance in the paint and Silva made the Wildcats pay for it.
Add in the fact that both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (six points, six turnovers) and Hamidou Diallo (five points) struggled to get going, and the end result was the shorthanded Wildcats losing a game they led by 13 points with 13:25 remaining. In a game that lacked flow for significant stretches — the teams combined to attempt 74 free throws — Kentucky managed just four fast break points. And with the point guard play lacking sans the injured Quade Green, Kentucky couldn’t do enough offensively to close out the Gamecocks.
2. KANSAS STATE WHIPS NO. 4 OKLAHOMA
There’s no denying the fact that Oklahoma freshman point guard Trae Young is one of the nation’s best players, and an early frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors. That being said, the Sooners really need their best playmaker to get his turnover issues in check. After turning the ball over nine times in the Sooners’ overtime win over TCU on Saturday, Young racked up a stunning 12 turnovers in Oklahoma’s 87-69 loss at Kansas State Tuesday night.
Add in the fact that he shot 8-for-21 from the field in scoring his 19 points, and the end result was what is the worst night of Young’s freshman season. Give credit to Bruce Weber’s charges, especially Barry Brown Jr., for much of this as they were active defensively and got after Young all night long. Brown also scored 24 points and dished out five assists, with Dean Wade adding 21, seven boards and seven assists as Kansas State picked up its first win over a ranked team this season.
Our Rob Dauster has more on Young’s rough night here.
3. NO. 15 NORTH CAROLINA HOLDS OFF NO. 20 CLEMSON
Having never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Clemson dropped to 0-59 all-time as Cameron Johnson led five Tar Heels in double figures with 21 points. After shooting a combined 3-for-16 from three in the four games prior, Johnson was 6-for-9 from deep and 7-for-10 from the field overall. Johnson and Kenny Williams III combined to score 20 points in the first half, which helped North Carolina build a 15-point halftime lead despite Joel Berry II and Luke Maye both struggling offensively.
Berry and Maye would pick it up in the second half, which helped North Carolina hold off a Clemson team that made ten of its first 11 shots from the field. Marquise Reed tallied 21 points and Shelton Mitchell 18 for the Tigers, who shot better than 61 percent from the field in the second half. Clemson should be fine moving forward, but the big takeaway from this result is Johnson breaking out of his slump and showing just how valuable he is to North Carolina moving forward.