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What’s wrong with Kentucky?: Why the Wildcats have struggled in recent weeks

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Kentucky has reached a crossroads of their season.

They steamrolled everyone in their path for the first month of the year. Losses at home to UCLA and at Louisville were explainable, particularly when there was a win over North Carolina in Las Vegas between them, and forgettable once SEC play started and the Wildcats were doing things like beating Texas A&M by 42 points.

But over the course of the last three weeks, the high-octane Wildcats have looked like a mustang on the highway being driven with the emergency brake on. As Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio put it, “Kentucky is a bad basketball team full of talented basketball players.”

“You won’t want to be at that practice tomorrow,” head coach John Calipari said in his postgame interview on ESPN after the Wildcats gave up 58 second half points in a 92-85 win over hapless LSU, the fifth straight game they’ve allowed more than 79 points to their opponent. “If someone wants to quit, they can quit. Because this has got to stop at some point.”

This is a team with as much talent as anyone in the country. This is a team that, at one point, looked like an unstoppable force.

How has it gone so wrong for Kentucky?

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 07: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats defends against Antonio Blakeney #2 of the LSU Tigers in the first half of the game at Rupp Arena on February 7, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated LSU 92-85. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

1. This just isn’t a good defensive team right now: That’s the crux of the issue for this team. They’re just aren’t getting enough stops. They’ve allowed an average of 86.2 points the last five games and, in the last four games, they’ve gifted their opponents an average of 54 points in the second half. They were beat up in the post by Tennessee. They were beaten in transition by Florida. Yante Maten of Georgia lit them up. LSU’s Antonio Blakeney scored 31 points, easily the best game he’s played this season.

“They couldn’t guard us for s***,” said a member of one staff that has faced Kentucky recently. Entering the game against Tennessee, the start of this recent slide, the Wildcats had totaled just 16 possessions of zone all season long. They’ve more than doubled that number in the last five games, with a total of 27 possessions coming against Georgia and Florida. Coach Cal relies as much upon a straight man-to-man defense as anyone, so while that number may not sound all that high in a vacuum, consider that in 2014-15, he played a total of 32 zone possessions.

Early on this season, Kentucky was able to thrive defensively because of the advantage they have physically. They were bigger, stronger and more athletic than anyone that they faced. Malik Monk, for example, didn’t need to understand how to scheme against a pick-and-roll when going up against Hofstra’s guards. The result was that Kentucky could force tough shots and turnovers which, in turn, allowed Kentucky to fire up their transition game, which is as terrifying in its speed, ferocity and directness as any in college hoops.

That’s the key to beating Kentucky.

You don’t let them beat you in transition.

“That was our No. 1 thing: make it a half-court game,” said an SEC coach who has scouted Kentucky this season. There are a couple of ways to go about this, the easiest of which is limiting the number of players that are going to the glass. Instead of sending three or four players to chase an offensive rebound, only send the two bigs. The more bodies behind the ball, the harder it is to get uncontested layups.

The other part of it is to avoid making the mistakes that lead to fast breaks. Don’t commit live-ball turnovers. Don’t take quick shots or forced jumpers. Run offense. Get the ball into the post. Because, unlike some of Kentucky’s best teams, this group will actually make mistakes defensively, which leads me into my next point.

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2. This is what freshmen are supposed to be: One thing that got lost in Kentucky’s frenetic start to the season is that this lineup is as young as any that John Calipari’s ever had. His starting lineup includes four freshmen and a sophomore, and no one in that group is the kind of game-changing defensive presence that we’ve seen amongst Kentucky’s one-and-done players. There is no Karl-Anthony Towns. There is no Anthony Davis. There is no Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel.

“They were as talented as they come, ahead of the game defensively as a freshman, and that’s a unique thing,” said an SEC assistant. “Most are ahead of the game offensively as freshmen. You don’t get freshmen that are like seniors as freshmen, and [Towns, Davis, Noel and Cauley-Stein] were killers on defense.”

This team, with all those young guys, they don’t have those guys that are seniors on defense. Isaiah Briscoe is the veteran presence on the floor and he’s a sophomore 50 games into his college career. Derek Willis is a senior, but his ineptitude on the defensive end of the floor is the reason that he can’t crack the starting lineup in a team that’s desperate for perimeter shooting. The same can be said for Mychal Mulder. In theory, Dominique Hawkins would be the ideal player to put in that role, but if he’s on the floor that means that one of Fox, Monk or Briscoe isn’t, and that’s simply not a recipe for consistent success.

The larger point is that freshmen are supposed to make mistakes defensively. That’s what freshmen do. The bigs are learning how to do something other than be really big and play in front of the rim. Guards are learning about a myriad of different ball-screens coverages, their defensive rotations, specific game-plans for specific players. Once you get into the meat of league play, defending isn’t as simple as “just stop your man,” and at this level, an individual’s defensive mistake leads to a breakdown of the entire defense.

Point being, Kentucky doesn’t have bad individual defenders as much as they have young defenders, and young defenders make mistakes.

Which brings us back to the issue of Kentucky’s transition game, because their defensive issues are compounded by the fact that …

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. … Kentucky is predictable in the half court: It’s not a secret what they’re trying to do, as their offense is, essentially, one of three things: Fox trying to turn the corner going left, Monk getting run off of screens and hunting jumpshots, or Adebayo getting the ball thrown into him in the post.

All three players are difficult to stop individually, but defenses don’t usually play them individually. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting woes have been a talking point since before the season started, and where those issues manifest themselves is in the inability for Fox to get driving lanes and for Adebayo to get a shot at going 1-on-1 in the post.

Monk can win any game on his own, but ‘hero ball’ can also shoot the Wildcats out of a game.

“We knew how dangerous Monk is in the half court, but you’re going to live with him taking tough shots,” said an SEC assistant. “If he gets 25, making tough shots in the half court, you deal.”

Against Georgia, Monk had 31 of his 37 points after halftime in a come-from-behind win. Three days later, he has his worst game of the season and Kentucky got smoked at Florida.

The other issue?

There seems to be a lack of fight with this group. Talk to people around the conference and you’ll hear things like “don’t really see a lot of leadership” and “they seem disinterested.” Tennessee is totally outclassed in terms of talent but, as one person that scouted the Tennessee’s win said, “Tennessee just played harder.” In the loss to Florida, they got punched in the mouth and didn’t have an answer, as Florida dominated the glass, picked up every loose ball and lit up Kentucky in transition.

In other words, Florida did to Kentucky what Kentucky wants to do to everyone else.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. This is the danger of expectations: To me, this was the biggest take away I had from reporting on Kentucky.

Let’s look at this in a vacuum. As of today, the Wildcats are 19-5 on the season. They’re sitting tied for first place in the SEC with a good shot at getting a top three seed in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday. They have game-changing talent all over their roster and a back court that will be outclassed by exactly zero teams.

All things considered, that’s not a bad year to have for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.

But this is Kentucky, where sitting atop a power conference has people questioning whether or not the basketball team is actually good.

The bottom line is this: At some point, all teams get found out. Once a few games worth of film make it to synergy, the coaches in this profession are good enough to figure out A) what it is that you want to do and B) how to slow it down. The best of the best are able to win when their opponent knows exactly what’s coming and make their adjustments while on a winning streak.

Everyone else, including teams as good and as talented and as flawed as Kentucky, will take a few losses along the way. They’ll go through a slump, and that’s where the Wildcats are right now.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on on,” Calipari said, adding later, “[I] don’t want to shorten the rotation to five or six guys, but I will if I have to. I’d like to play eight or nine guys so they all get a chance to play, have fun, morale, all that. But you better deserve to be on that court.”

Duke dealt with this for a month before they made the decision to fully embrace playing small-ball. They’re 3-0 since the change. Kansas had their issues and they made the decision to play zone; it earned them a comeback win in Rupp Arena despite playing short-handed.

Kentucky’s 2014 team – the last Cal-coached team to start four freshmen and a sophomore, the team that entered the year with hopes of going 40-0 and entered the tournament with 10 losses, finishing six games behind SEC champs Florida – had ‘the tweak’ before making their run to the national title game.

Calipari has been talking this week about a ‘reboot’.

Will that be enough for this group to fix what ails them?

John Calipari lobbies for change in one-and-some rule to help athletes

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari is hoping the one-and-done rule changes so that athletes have more rights.

In a revealing interview with Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Calipari went into great detail about his thoughts behind a rule that many believe he has exploited greatly to his benefit over the last 10 years. Even though the Wildcats and Calipari have figured out the one-and-done rule to their advantage, the Hall of Fame coach still wants the rule to be abolished.

“Kids should be able to go (to the NBA) out of high school. That’s not our deal. That’s between the NBA and the Players Association,” Calipari said Friday. “Don’t put restrictions on kids.”

Calipari told Engel that he met with the NBPA last week in the hopes of the organization creating a combine for worthy high school juniors with pro potential. Calipari also wants agents more involved with high school kids.

“The players and the families need to know – here are the ones who should be thinking about the NBA, and here are the ones who should not,” Calipari said. “That’s why you need a combine.”

“If they want to go out of high school, go. If they want to go to college and then leave, let them leave when they want to leave. Why would we force a kid to stay? ‘Well – it’s good for the game?’ It’s about these kids and their families. Because let me tell you, if we (abolish one-and-done), the kids that do come to college will stay for two to three years.”

Calipari also has plenty of thoughts on the NBA G-League and how the league could potentially help young athletes with an education fund if they choose to turn pro directly out of high school. Regardless of what happens with the NBPA and the one-and-done rule, Calipari also said that his program would be fine — regardless of the rules.

Given that Calipari has operated on a different recruiting plane than everyone else in college basketball (with the exception of a few other bluebloods like Duke and Kansas) the last several years, it’s always notable when he gives his thoughts on the overall landscape of basketball.

But is Calipari actually lobbying for this? Or is this yet another way for Calipari to mold quotes into a recruiting pitch for elite players? Ultimately, it’s up to the NBPA to decide how the rules will be for future pros.

Report: NCAA allows Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale to compete on Dancing with the Stars

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After a memorable March Madness run that included two game-winning jumpers in the Final Four and an eventual national title, Notre Dame junior guard Arike Ogunbowale became a breakout national star.

Ogunbowale already appeared on Ellen while meeting her basketball idol, Kobe Bryant. Now, Ogunbowale will get the rare opportunity to appear on Dancing with the Stars — which the NCAA will allow even though Ogunbowale is still a rising senior who is scheduled to return to school next season.

Dancing with the Stars compensates its contestants and also has a prize for the winner. Under NCAA Bylaw 12.4.1, college athletes cannot be compensated based on their athletic abilities.

But the NCAA is arguing that Ogunbowale’s appearance on the show is “unrelated to her basketball abilities,” according to a statement they released regarding the decision. According to a report from Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post, the NCAA is also limiting Ogunbowale’s visibility for the show’s promotional tools.

From the Washington Post report:

The NCAA has placed restrictions on Ogunbowale that limit her involvement with the show and her potential to build her brand. She is not allowed to appear in promotional materials for the show, including commercials, according to the NCAA’s statement. She didn’t join other contestants during a group appearance on “Good Morning America” last week. Show handicappers have already wondered whether the NCAA’s limits will hurt her chances.

And the NCAA could turn down future requests by arguing that Ogunbowale is not endorsing “Dancing with the Stars” by appearing on the program, but instead is participating in a “personal growth experience” by learning how to ballroom dance, said Barbara Osborne, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina.

This is a slippery slope for the NCAA to take with this. Ogunbowale is, quite clearly, a famous basketball player. She’s on Dancing with the Stars because of her basketball abilities. The NCAA arguing anything else is just silly and embarrassing. The NCAA is also trying its best to uphold its argument about amateurism in the only way they know how.

But could this also could be a sign that the NCAA is perhaps open to the potential of allowing athletes to profit off of themselves in the future? The NCAA is currently handling a number of different court cases regarding amateurism, so it’s hard to say where all of this might go until the legal process starts to clear up.

Either way, this should be a fun experience for Ogunbowale while providing great national exposure for herself and women’s basketball. Ogunbowale might not be technically allowed to build her own brand during the show, but she’ll be gaining tons of new exposure for her basketball future — regardless of what the NCAA says in a statement.

Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab diagnosed with leukemia

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Memphis center Karim Sameh Azab announced on Saturday that he’s been battling leukemia lymphoma.

The 6-foot-11 big man from Egypt has been receiving medical treatment since the beginning of April as he took to Twitter to announce his current status.

Sameh Azab played in 15 games this season for the Tigers as he saw action for 84 total minutes. The reserve big man was a late addition in former head coach Tubby Smith’s first recruiting class at Memphis as he didn’t quality to play during his first season.

“Karim has my full support and the support of our whole team,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said in a statement earlier this month. “While we appreciate the support of the Tiger family in this matter, we would also like to protect the privacy of Karim and his family.”

South Dakota State’s Mike Daum declares for 2018 NBA Draft without an agent

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South Dakota State big man Mike Daum will enter the 2018 NBA Draft without an agent, he announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior has been a mid-major draft darling the past few seasons as Daum was one of the most productive players in the country last season. Putting up 23.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, Daum shot 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range during the season.

With his size and unique floor-spacing ability, Daum is going to be an interesting player to track during the NBA draft process. Teams are always looking for big men who can space the floor, and if Daum shoots well in workouts, he could wind up staying in the draft.

If Daum returns to South Dakota State, then he once again makes them a major NCAA tournament contender after the Jackrabbits won the Summit League last season.

Marquette lands Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny

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Marquette pulled in a quality graduate transfer commitment on Friday as Fordham guard Joseph Chartouny pledged to the Golden Eagles.

The 6-foot-3 Chartouny was a three-year starter for the Rams as he should help offset the loss of guard Andrew Rowsey to graduation. While Chartouny isn’t nearly the perimeter threat that Rowsey was, he should be able to help significantly on the defensive end for Marquette. Chartouny put up 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season as he was one of the more productive all-around players in the Atlantic 10.

One of the nation’s leaders in steals the past three seasons, Chartouny has much better size to play alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt than Rowsey (5-foot-11) had. Since Howard is also 5-foot-11, Chartouny can now guard the bigger and more athletic perimeter matchup as Marquette tries to improve its porous defense from last season.

Marquette still has an open scholarship for next season as they’ve been investigating other transfer options to bolster the roster. Returning most of last season’s roster, the expectation will be for the Golden Eagles to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season.