Criticism continues to mount on John Calipari after Kentucky’s offense fell dramatically against UCLA

New York – Let’s start with the optimistic part first, because there are a lot of not-so-pretty things that will follow. Kentucky has dozens of chances left on their schedule to prove they’re a top-level basketball team, so it’s not quite the same as a sleazy offensive performance Saturday at 63-53 loss to UCLA The Wildcats will cost something bigger down the road.

What happened here inside Madison Square Garden could just be one bad loss, setting the stage for redemption in the weeks and months to come. There is this possibility.

With that in mind, let’s actually tackle the week after Christmas. That’s where the No. 13-ranked Wildcats stand after losing in the CBS Sports Classic to No. 16 UCLA.

  • They are 7-3 and have no wins over a top 50 opponent (per multiple predictive metrics)
  • Losses made to the good teams UK couldn’t/could try to claim morale victory mode over: in double overtime Michigan State’s 16-point lead against Gonzaga, lackluster performance Saturday against UCLA.
  • Crime is declining – powerfully

Sure, there will be the inevitable destruction of humble Louisville in less than two weeks, and another big non-conference opportunity will land in January when the UK hosts Kansas in the final round of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. With the SEC having a particularly strong upper third of the teams, Kentucky will have the time and opportunity to solidify its resume. And that’s better.

Because John Calipari never seems to get out of the way of criticism.

More reality: Calipari has entered this season under more scrutiny than he has ever experienced as a college coach. Kentucky was a nine-win team two seasons ago, one of the worst years in Big Blue Nation history. Totally unacceptable, covid season or not. The Cats rebounded last season, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a Naismith National Player of the Year performance from Oscar Cheppuis… only to have that blown out by St. Peter’s in the first round.

This brought pressure to Calipari’s office in a way he had never experienced before. It’s not that his job is in danger. Of course not. But Kentucky fans hold their coach accountable as much, if not more, than any other rule in college sports. After ten matches, it’s hard to say there’s much to cheer about. Kentucky continues to falter against legitimate competition. A 7-3 record with the warning off that mark including a 1-3 record against power conference programs wouldn’t cut it.

Calipari spoke about his team’s offensive prowess in the pre-season. There was believable promise. He was recruited to improve the UK’s attack scheme. However, up to this point, this ad is spotty at best. The Wildcats only manage 53 points against a good UCLA team that plays three time zones away from where they will celebrate Christmas.

The Cats seemed inept in offense, and that fell squarely on the Calipari. In fact, Kentucky hasn’t done badly, aggressively, since it’s been so infamous and historically bad. appearing against UConn in the 2011 Final Four.

“You can’t go 5-for-13 from the goal line, not in a game like this,” Calipari said. “You can’t go four forward one-and-one, so you’re really 5-on-17. You don’t have to do every free throw, but you can’t go that many.”

So bad was Kentucky’s offense that it fell from 19th to 28th on in the space of two hours.

Bruins coach Mick Cronin seemed to like it.

“It became a bloodbath,” he said. “At some point it became a Big East game. Back in the park, it was great to be back.”

One man’s failure is another man’s Picasso. Calipari tried to rotate him next. Give him this: He’s as willing to show optimism in the face of indisputable evidence as any coach in the game.

“We missed so many open shots, it got frustrating, and the crazy thing is we could still win the game,” he said.

He cut Kentucky to a two-point lead with 4:31 to go. Then UCLA turned off the water and had a good night. Kentucky did not score again. UCLA was tougher and more confident. She won by 10 points and that double-digit margin was well worth it. Kentucky lost offensively and still had no answers on the lineup nearly a third of the way into the season. With such a veteran presence, that’s a red flag. Jacob Tobin is not the outstanding player he was promised. CJ Frederick, the 3-point shooter this team needs, scored zero in six minutes. Antonio Reeves has been in and out of the flow of the game all evening.

The attack needs a shake-up, and against physical teams of size and experience, Calipari is still looking for answers.

“We have good shooters,” Calipari said. “We’re one of the better three-point shooting teams, and we missed it.”

Not quite right. In fact, it might be a good shot that some fools went to this point. Against the big four teams Kentucky has faced this season, it went 1-3 and scored better than just 1.0 points per possession in one of those games, its 73-69 win over Michigan. On Saturday, it was 0.79 PPP rotten. From a 3-point range against Michigan State, Michigan, Gonzaga and UCLA, Kentucky combined scores 29.1% (25-for-86).

There is a recession. There is an expected stoppage of motion late in the games. Good teams seem to be able to tag Kentucky, and without a dynamic alpha scorer on the roster, it puts a cap on Kentucky’s creativity. I did not expect this. In early November, I picked the Wildcats to win the national title. There is little to suggest that this is possible with this team.

“We’re not a bad free throw team. We were today,” Calpari said.

Objectively not true at this point. With a sample size of 10 games, Kentucky ranks 304th nationally with a 66.3% hit-from-the-foul line success rate.

“These things are contagious,” Calipari said. “When you watch one guy miss the next guy and you wake up with that in your mind, that’s part of it.”

I’m not here to announce that the Kentucky season is over. If anything, it hasn’t really started. The UK can’t get out of third gear against good teams most of the time. Calipari has had projects over the years that took a couple of months or more to figure out, but that wasn’t supposed to be the way with this team, which doesn’t rely on a heavy subset of freshmen. Instead, Kentucky looks a long way from the preseason top five team it has been billed as. When will this team come? Calipari may claim to have that answer, but even if that were the case, it would be hard to believe at this point.

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