LEXINGTON — Nine games into the season, it appears this University of Kentucky basketball team has more in common with last season’s NIT bunch than 2012’s national champions.
I’m talking about long stretches where the Wildcats show little interest in the outcome, and fail to communicate to the point that it seems as if they don’t recognize there are teammates on the court at the same time.
At the end of last season, after Kentucky lost its first-round NIT game to Robert Morris, coach John Calipari claimed he would have enough talent on this season’s team to use the bench as a motivational tool.
And yet, Calipari appeared to throw that idea out the window in Friday’s 67-62 loss to the Baylor Bears in Dallas. The UK coach stuck with the same players for maddeningly long stretches, even after — as freshman forward James Young put it — the players grew tired and lost focus.
Another performance like that tonight (9 on ESPN) against the Boise State Broncos and Kentucky will be looking at 7-3.
The Broncos are not only 8-0 but are second in the nation in scoring at 91.9 points per game, led by Anthony Drmic at 20.4 points per game.
The good news for the Wildcats, at the very least, is twofold:
First, this Kentucky team has too much talent to settle for the NIT for a second straight year. So Kentucky is playing for nothing less than NCAA Tournament seeding. There’s plenty of time to worry about final fours and national titles later.
That brings me to point two: It IS early. There’s plenty of time for Calipari and his staff to find the right buttons to push to motivate a bunch of Wildcats who seemingly find it difficult to consistently play hard, even when some 10,000 UK fans (out of a crowd of some 12,000) pay some $500 apiece for a flight to Dallas and then all but ice skate to AT&T Stadium to watch them play Baylor. Plus, lodging, food, etc.
But, whatever, that’s not the players’ problem, and clearly, they’re not worrying about it.
Calipari says the problem is one of maturity.
“This team, what they seem to do is get it going and do it right and then get arrogant (a good word, that), then they step back,” Calipari said Monday. “The first five minutes of the (Baylor) game we had no pressure on the ball, none. No talking, and just got shoved out of the way. Where did we go from where we were to how did we step back? Well, that’s what young teams do.
“Look, the way we do it is really hard. The way they have always played has been really easy. Now, which way do you want to do it, the real hard way or the easy way? And every chance you can revert back to see if it still works, you do. It’s just how it is coaching young teams.”
Calipari said his team is not playing with confidence. In other words, the Wildcats have not played together enough to be fully aware of who can do what and when. Obviously, that can be fixed with time.
“We don’t have team confidence, and the reason is because they are not relying on one another,” Calipari said. “They are not talking to one another. And we are not a great defensive team.
“When you become a great defensive team and rebounding team, you take great pride in it,” he added. “When you take great pride in defense and rebounding, you have confidence. We haven’t built that yet, and we are just trying to get them to understand. That’s the only way to build it. They all have habits they have to change.”
Young pretty much agreed with Calipari’s assessment.
“I think it was just the lack of communication that we had,” Young said Monday when asked why the Wildcats were outworked by the Bears. “We did not come out with as much fire as we should have. We were supposed to pick it up in the beginning of the game, and we let that go.”
Young was then asked about Kentucky’s 12 of 23 free throw shooting in the Baylor game.
“We just probably lost focus, and we’ve got to stay focused,” he said. “Mental discipline ... coach always points that out. We need to stay focused a little more.”
Young was also asked about Kentucky’s lethargic defense, and he gave another answer that wasn’t all that reassuring.
“We can play defense,” Young said. “It’s just that we tend to stop sometimes, and that’s what will really get us. We’ve just got to keep playing through the whole possession and not stop.”
We’ll end this with a word of hope from Calipari that does have merit.
“We don’t rebound, and we can’t make a free throw, and we still should have won the game,” Calipari said of the Baylor loss.
“We’re fine,’’ he added. “I haven’t lost any confidence in the team. I have a lot of work to do as a coach, and they have a lot of work to do changing and buying in.
“We’re not near what we need to be.”
We can all agree on that.