Kentucky is as talented as any team in the country this season, but they are currently tied for fourth in the SEC East at 7-6.
Its no secret why, either. For as much skill as the Wildcats have on their roster, they simply cannot win games on the road. On the season, they are 2-7 in road games. One win came at Portland back November as they were preparing for the Maui Invitational. The other win came at Louisville in a game that featured more than a fair share of Big Blue Nation in the crowd.
These aren’t blowout losses, either.
Of their seven road losses, five have come by one possession. None were by more than seven points. In total, Kentucky has lost those seven games by just 20 points.
So what happened?
I went back to the tape to see and, quite obviously, the issue is simply poor late game execution.
- 12/4 @ North Carolina 75-73: Of the seven road losses, this is the toughest game to place fault on the Wildcats late-game execution. Down by one with 21 seconds left, Doron Lamb, who had the hot-hand, was isolated on the right wing. He drove baseline and missed a pretty-well-contested eight-foot runner that would have given Kentucky a one point lead. Its hard to imagine Kentucky being in that situation in Terrence Jones hadn’t shot 3-17 on the day.
- 1/8 @ Georgia 77-70: Brandon Knight hit a tough jumper to tie the game at 58 with seven minutes remaining. Over the next five minutes, Kentucky fouled Georgia on five of their eight possessions and gave up a Trey Thompkins layup on another as they missed seven straight field goals. Georgia would go on a 9-1 run in that stretch. To be fair, just as much credit should be given to Georgia in this case as blame to Kentucky.
- 1/28 @ Alabama 68-66: Kentucky dug themselves a 20 point hole in the second half, but managed to climb all the way out of it, getting the Alabama lead down to one with less than a minute left. But with 40 seconds left, Brandon Knight tried to force the penetration of a gap, barreling into a help-side defender and picking up a charge. After getting a stop at the other end, Kentucky had 10 seconds to work with, but Knight again turned the ball over, this time allowing a Tide defender to steal his dribble hand-off with Doron Lamb.
- 2/1 @ Ole Miss 71-69: This is when it starts to get really ugly. Up 69-68 with a minute left, Kentucky is trying to work the clock. Brandon Knight penetrates down the right side of the lane, draws Darius Miller’s defender, and kicks it to the junior, who is standing wide open in the corner with six seconds left on the shot clock. Miller opts now to shoot the three, instead penetrating, getting stuck, and kicking the ball out to Liggins, who doesn’t realize the shot clock is about to expire. At the other end of the floor, Chris Warren is run off of a ball screen, Terrence Jones backs off of him, and Warren buries a 25 footer for the win.
- 2/5 @ Florid 70-68: Florida was up one with the ball and a seven second difference in the shot clock and game clock. Kentucky tried to play straight up defense, but fouled Chandler Parsons with 12.7 seconds left in the game. He hit one of two, and at the other end of the floor, Brandon Knight came off of a ball-screen and settled for a contested 23-footer and bounced off the front of the rim.
- 2/19 @ Vanderbilt 81-77: After a Brandon Knight three gave Kentucky a three point lead with 5:43 left in the game, the Commodores went on an 11-3 run in a 3:30 span. The run was catalyzed by three UK turnovers that led directly to buckets for Vanderbilt in an 81-77 loss.
At this point, you cannot help but wonder if these struggles have gotten to the Wildcats. At some point, executing down the stretch becomes a mental thing; Kentucky looks nervous, antsy, and plays without confidence. The are waiting to see how they can blow the game instead of trying to make a play to win it.
That’s the best way I can describe it, because the Wildcats had six chances to win it against Arkansas.
In regulation, on Kentucky’s final possession, Brandon Knight missed two wide open three-pointers in the span of six seconds. After the second one missed, Kentucky had a chance to tip the rebound in, but that missed too.
In the overtime period, Kentucky took the lead on a Terrence Jones jumper, and after getting a stop at the other end of the floor, the Wildcats worked the shot clock. But with just 20 seconds left, Knight tried to make a lazy pass that was deflected, and Marcus Britt scored at the other end to give the Razorbacks the lead. On the ensuing possession, Knight missed a runner off the glass. He got his own rebound, but missed a turnaround jumper. The ball went out off of Arkansas, so Kentucky called a timeout to set up an inbounds play.
And the play worked.
Both Jones and Knight ran off of a Harrellson screen on the block.
Everyone followed the two stars, leaving Kentucky’s big fella wide open at the rim. But Liggins passed the ball to Knight for a tough fadeaway three instead of being patient enough to find Harrellson. Knight’s three bounced off of the rim, and Arkansas won.
At this point, the Wildcat’s road struggles can be pinned on three things — poise, execution, and, most importantly, confidence in late game situations.