Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Kentucky Basketball and Football are finally back working together, teaming up over the past 96 hours to deliver nothing but pain to the Big Blue Nation. The fourth ranked Kentucky Wildcats had another disappointing trip to Indianapolis, as they fall just short, not once (regulation), nor twice (overtime), but a third time (double overtime) to unranked Michigan State in the 2022 Champions Classic. Kentucky went up 20-13, with 8:42 left in the first half, on a Sahvir Wheeler layup, off of a Cason Wallace assist. After that, it was a consistently frustrating game that saw missed open shots, not running any offensive sets late and not being able to put away the game, despite multiple opportunities to do so. Also, the refs sucked to the point where we have to be seriously concerned about the future of college basketball, but at least they consistently sucked against both teams, so there's that.
Let's start with the positives and then get into what went wrong and what needs to change. First, Cason Wallace is going to be a star. He scored 14 points on 50% shooting from the field, easily the best percentage from Kentucky's backcourt last night. Most impressively, he recorded eight steals and held AJ Hoggard, Michigan State's primary offensive option, to 4 points on 1-7 shooting.
There were two complaints down the stretch against Cason: free throws and turnovers. Cason had 3 trips to the line and only made 1 free throw in each of those. It sucks that he wasn't able to seal the game, but this will absolutely not be a problem moving forward. A Calipari guard of his caliber will not be a 50% free throw shooter. It's just not going to happen.
As for the turnovers, it is important to recognize that Cason had 5 assists and 0 turnovers in regulation. All 3 of his turnovers and none of his assists were recorded in overtime. Cason, in his third college game ever, had to play 44 minutes against a very physical basketball team. You could tell the wheels were falling off down the stretch, which once again, will not be a problem moving forward. If a couple veterans had stepped up when needed during regulation, we would be celebrating how Kentucky has a top 5 freshman in the country. We cannot not look past that.
Second, Oscar Tshiebwe is still the best player in the world. In his first game of the season coming off of a knee surgery, the reigning National Player of the Year put up 22 points, 18 rebounds and 4 blocks, while being Kentucky's only offensive option that was consistently working down the stretch. One on hand, I think we relied on him too much. We have already seen what our team looks like when we have an offense of 4 people standing around and Oscar working in the post: a first round tournament loss to a 15 seed. Regardless, Oscar Tshiebwe is the most dominant force in college basketball who will only keep becoming more and more effective, the better everyone starts playing around him.
Lastly, Sahvir Wheeler has once again proven himself to be one of the top point guards in the country. There are a lot of people are pointing to him forcing shots late in the game, but there is only so much that you can expect him to do, when your go-to offensive option fouls out of the game and no one else is doing anything offensively. Sahvir Wheeler was great last night and was set up for failure down the stretch, due to having him run the point without an offensive identity.
Unfortunately, that brings us to the negative: Kentucky's struggles of generating late game offense were the key factor of a first round exit last season. They continued last night against Michigan State. CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves were not hitting their shots as they normally do. The two wings, who were so reliable in the first two games, combined for 3/14 shooting from the field and 2/9 from behind the arc. However, to completely abandon what worked so well for you the first two games, simply because a couple shots weren't falling, is setting yourself up for failure. The fact is that Kentucky struggled to score in the final minutes of regulation and in each overtime period, while Antonio Reeves, who was averaging 20.0 points per game up until yesterday, only played 2 minutes and 57 seconds in the final 18 minutes and 17 seconds of the game.
Throwing the ball down low to Oscar was a great plan of attack that worked for a good stretch of time. However, that can easily be stopped with a double team and when they do not have a counter to the double team, or a different set they can run, Kentucky's offense is going to remain limited and force Oscar and Sahvir into making plays that are outside of their game.
If we expect to win 6 straight tournament games in March and April, we will inevitably run into games where Oscar runs into foul trouble or Reeves and Fredrick struggle to make shots. You have to hope they don't all happen at the same time, but you need a plan in case any of them happen. The good thing is that John Calipari and crew have lots of time to improve and more chances to prove themselves moving forward.
With the Cats finally at full strength and having the ability to get a couple games under their belts, it will be fun to see what the Cats will be able to do against the #2 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs on Sunday. Building off of the "Big 3" of Tshiebwe, Wallace and Wheeler, as well as getting Reeves and Fredrick back in a rhythm, and establishing an end-of-game identity on the offensive end that isn't centered around one single player, the Cats will have a chance to get back on track with a big time win in Spokane.