Kentucky The season went off-kilter off the rails on Tuesday as wildcat favorites fell from 19.5 points at home in an upset to unranked South Carolina 71-68. The loss snapped Kentucky’s 28-game home winning streak at Rupp Arena I was longest streak in the SEC and dropped the Wildcats to 1-3 in conference play for the first time since the 1986-1987 season. The catastrophic loss comes just days after it fell by 26 points to Alabama – Biggest margin of defeat in the century-long series against the Crimson Tide – on Saturday.
The Wildcats struggled at various points throughout the season, both on offense and defense, but Tuesday against the Gamecocks was a combination of everything going wrong at all times. South Carolina smashed the net from 3, crashed on the offensive boards and had 21 second chance points in a wire-to-wire victory against the UK faithful. And every time the Wildcats ran around to narrow things down, South Carolina seemed to have an answer all the way to the end.
South Carolina got Meechie Johnson’s 26 big — a new career high — in his out-of-mind scoring performance on the road to end an upset. Johnson hit six of his 10 3-point attempts, including an implausible run from long range late in the second half and another near the crest to solidify the lead as UK were pushing to close it. Freshman JJ Jackson also added three points on two attempts and contributed 16 points on 6 of 10.
South Carolina was just as sweltering as cold Kentucky in another flat performance by the Wildcats. Even with his Player of the Year award winning Oscar Cheppui, UK have worked the plates and attacking glazes, getting no help from the aggressive side of things to tip the scales. The team took only 10 seconds and made three, a baffling strategy by a team that is statistically one of the best 3-point shooting teams of the Calipari era.
Complicating matters, star rookie Casson Wallace, the team’s best three-point shooting percentage, left midway through the game with an injury and did not return.
Here are three notes from the game.
1. The pressure on Calipari is mounting
John Calipari denied reports this week that Texas officials had approached him about a vacant coaching position following Chris Bird’s firing. But this was as distracting as possible for a Hall of Fame trainer. After falling to No. 15 seed St. Peter in the NCAA Tournament, Big Blue Nation was the Big Mad Nation targeting Calipari, and starting 10-6 in 2022-23 – despite opening the season as a top-five team – added pressure on him. It would be one thing if the talent wasn’t there, but this list has a lot going for it. The effort seems to wane and fade intermittently, though, and the system—spacing, pace, three-point attempts—seemed to be off as well. It’s never good when your fan base is making signs telling you to leave. (Even worse when your school officials have to go to the New York Knicks to defend the coach by kicking a fan out of the arena.)
2. KENTUCKY FIGHTS ARE CONTINUED TO FLASH SHOOTING
Having hit seven of 14 tries against South Carolina, Kentucky has now hit a 65.6% charity bar on the season — a mark that ranks third in the SEC’s rankings and near the 300 mark nationally (of 363 Division I teams). Four of Kentucky’s six losses on the season were by double digits, so it’s not the only thing keeping it from winning, but make no mistake: It’s a big deal. On Tuesday, it was the difference between a win and another grueling loss.
3. What’s next for Kentucky?
Earlier Tuesday, the CBS Sports college basketball crew went to the gameAnd I was the top guy in the group. Then they turned around and lost to the least talented team in the SEC at home. So what’s next for Kentucky? There is no respite in sight. Saturday is a road game against Tennessee and an elite defense that will likely make this UK system look even more broken.
There is room for optimism here that Kentucky can turn things around, but there is no real basis on which to base that belief. It’s simply that… things couldn’t get much worse. This is a list of the top three by talent in the SEC. She has no games flop in the works away from her native South Carolina as the 19.5-point favorite. Things will definitely get better. They will almost certainly improve. But whether this is a shift towards a contest bid path remains up for debate, and things seemed to look a lot bleaker on Tuesday night than they did a few days ago.
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