John Clay: This Kentucky basketball team doesn't do the dirty work. And that's on John Calipari.

John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

The glamour doesn’t matter.

The windmill dunks, the crossover dribbles, the behind-the-back passes, the hero ball. They don’t mean a thing. All those five-star rankings and recruiting lists are entirely meaningless if your team refuses to do what truly matters to win basketball games.

This Kentucky basketball team doesn’t do the dirty work. It just doesn’t. It doesn’t guard. It doesn’t rebound. it doesn’t block out. It doesn’t accumulate floor burns. Those are the things you don’t see in the highlight reel but make all the difference. This Kentucky team doesn’t do those things.

To that end, John Calipari got one thing right after Kentucky’s 89-85 loss to Gonzaga on Saturday. The coach’s late-game play call, in which the Bulldogs easily intercepted Reed Sheppard’s in-bounds lob pass to Adou Thiero, was misguided from the minute he drew it up. (When was the last time the Wildcats executed a late-game play call, by the way?) That one play didn’t cause Kentucky’s first three-game home losing streak since before men walked on the moon.

What cost Kentucky the game Saturday was 50/50 balls. The loose balls that either team has a legitimate chance to grab. In Saturday’s first half, Gonzaga grabbed every one. Or so it seemed. The Zags both outhustled and outsmarted the Cats. Pure and simple.

“Just disappointing that we got beat to so many balls,” Calipari said.

That’s not just disappointing, it’s inexcusable. Your talent level might be out of your control, but your effort is not. Loose balls are hustle plays. So is rebounding. Gonzaga outrebounded the Cats 43-31. Mark Few’s team collected 18 offensive rebounds out of 37 opportunities for a jaw-dropping 48.6%, the third UK opponent this season to top 48%. The Zags did so against a team that played three 7-footers.

UK’s lack of success on the glass only exacerbates its chronic problems on the defensive end. After Tuesday’s 109-77 romp at Vanderbilt, Calipari said he just needed his team to be “8 to 10% better on defense.” Saturday, they were at least 10% worse. You didn’t have to be a Basketball Bennie to figure out Few’s game plan. Feed the post. Again and again. UK had no answer. The result: Gonzaga scored 50 points in the paint.

(Kentucky dropped from No. 105 to No. 124 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, but my guess is that by now you’re sick of KenPom numbers.)


UK missed Tre Mitchell on Saturday. There’s no denying that. The 6-foot-9 forward is not only a shooting and passing threat on the offensive end, but he also the best rebounder on a team that struggles to rebound. A back problem kept Mitchell out of his second straight game. The first one didn’t matter. Saturday did.

And yet, Calipari said something else disturbing after the Vanderbilt game: “I’ve told them, if you don’t dive on the floor, you’re coming out.”

That was a red flag right there. Basketball players shouldn’t have to be told to dive on the floor. It should be their instinct, their foundation, their desire. Hustle is a basic fundamental of a game that is much more than “wow” plays and scoring averages. You don’t have to be a five-year veteran to dive for a loose ball. Freshmen are allowed to do that, too.

“It’s all stuff we can clean up,” Calipari said Saturday before adding, “Thank goodness we have time.”

Do they? Selection Sunday is five weeks away. Twenty-three games into the season, it’s obvious the Hall of Fame coach hasn’t improved the weaknesses of his young team. That’s on him and his staff. And I have a far bigger problem with this team’s lack of progress than Calipari playing Rob Dillingham just 18 minutes.

Cal’s message to the fans on Saturday was, “Stick with them.” He should have said “Stick with us.” The head coach is not separate from his team. They’re in this thing together.

And until Calipari’s team starts doing the dirty work required, there’s not enough time in the world to make all the glamour matter.

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