One of the most telling ways to determine whether a team is “for real” is whether or not they can win on the road, especially in conference play.
Its not an easy thing to do. You have to deal with everything from raucous crowds and heckling students to friendly whistles and helpful scoreboard operators to something as simple as tired legs from traveling and sleeping in a hotel room.
The mark of a quality team and a team that can win come tournament time is whether they can perform against quality competition and handle inferior competition in a road arena.
Which is why Kentucky now has a bright and bold red flag attached to their name.
The Wildcats lost on the road once again on Tuesday night, dropping a 71-69 decision to Ole Miss thanks to this late three from Chris Warren.
The Wildcats are now 1-4 in true road games. (They are 2-4 if you count their game against Louisville at the Yum! Center as a road game.) The lone win came at Portland as UK got themselves ready to play in the Maui Invitational. The losses? By two at UNC, by seven at Georgia, by two at Alabama, and by two at Ole Miss.
Kentucky only has one other loss on the season, when they were blown out by UConn out in Maui.
The issue for Kentucky isn’t that they don’t have the talent to win on the road. Talent is talent, and Kentucky has two of the best players in the SEC in Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight. The bigger issue is that this team appears to lack some leadership. Do they have a guy willing to step up and make a big shot in crunch time?
Tonight was a perfect example. Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Brandon Knight scored all of Kentucky’s 34 second half points tonight. Knight sparked a run to get Kentucky back into the game when Ole Miss went on a 13-0 run to open an 11 point lead. Jones and Lamb finished off the run, with Jones hitting four late free throws to give the Wildcats a 69-68 lead with 1:21 left. After the Wildcats got a stop with 58 seconds left, they had a chance to extend the lead. But their two veteran leaders — Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins — were directly responsible for a shot clock violation on that possession. Miller passed up a wide open three with six seconds left on the shot clock. He passed the ball to Liggins, who was unaware that the shot clock was running out.
You’ll also notice that, in the most critical possession of the game, Kentucky’s three best scorers and three hottest players did not touch the ball at the end of the shot clock. And as a result, the Wildcats lost to a team at the bottom of the SEC West that had managed just one win in league play coming in.
That kind of late game execution is what has plagued them in their close road losses.
Poise and confidence in a late-game situation is a skill. Its a talent. And while its a trait that can be developed in a player, that is a daunting task for a coach when it is already February and his team’s three best players are all freshmen.
Kentucky has the talent to play with just about anybody this season. They have the horses to make it through to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
To do that, however, they are going to need to win some games down the stretch.
Put into a tough environment in a close game in March, do you have confidence that this group can close that game out with a win?
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.