The 2023-24 Kentucky men’s basketball season has reached a crossroads.
Losers of four of their last six games — including three straight defeats at Rupp Arena for the first time ever — the Wildcats are on a significant downswing with the NCAA Tournament creeping closer.
Now ranked No. 22 in the nation with a 16-7 overall record and a 6-4 mark in SEC games, Kentucky only has eight regular season games remaining before the SEC Tournament.
A pair of critical league games await the Wildcats this week at home to Ole Miss on Tuesday night and at No. 13 Auburn on Saturday night.
With panic levels rising among Kentucky basketball fans, a pair of UK coaches spoke publicly Monday following the Wildcats’ 89-85 home loss to Gonzaga on Saturday.
In the morning, UK associate coach Orlando Antigua met with reporters. In the evening, UK head coach John Calipari co-hosted his weekly radio show.
Both preached patience with a freshman-heavy Kentucky team as the season hits its home stretch. But, it was also evident that Kentucky’s defensive shortcomings, inability to have a healthy roster of players and lackluster record against quality teams (UK is 2-5 in Quad 1 games this season, per the NCAA NET rankings) were also front of mind.
John Calipari says Kentucky is a team built for the postseason
The headline comments from Calipari’s radio show will center around the UK coach expressing belief that his team is still prime for a run in March Madness, despite recent results.
“We’re built for March,” Calipari began one of his early show comments with.
“Now, real simply, we have to get more physical, we have to get 50-50 balls, and that includes rebounds that are free that we’ve gotten and we haven’t gotten,” Calipari added. “And we’ve got to get, I’d say 10% better defensively.”
Calipari added that defensive and physical performance on the court will be the key reason behind playing time decisions for the rest of the season.
According to KenPom, UK entered Monday night’s slate of games ranked 124th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. The numbers are worse when it comes to rebounding: Kentucky is 168th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 233rd when it comes to keeping opponents off the offensive glass.
Neither metric correlates to any form of NCAA Tournament success.
“I believe in the team,” Calipari later said. “We’re going to break through. We’re built for postseason. We are. You may say, ‘Well, why does he say that?’ Because, if you can score 75 or 80 (points) in an NCAA (tournament) game, and let’s defend a little better, let’s get a little more physical, let’s do it, you can advance. … It’s hard to advance if you’re scoring 60, 65. … We have guys that can make baskets, that, we’re not running (plays), they can just go get a basket.”
John Calipari comments on Kentucky’s defensive schemes
With Kentucky having all sorts of defensive struggles this season — from point-of-attack defense to pick-and-roll defense to defensive rebounding — a common question has cropped up surrounding UK’s defensive approach: Why not play zone?
A fan left a comment for Calipari to address on his radio show about why the Wildcats haven’t played a 2-3 zone given their defensive futility.
Here’s what Calipari had to say about that:
“We have a 2-3 zone that we can use. When you’re playing teams that really shoot it well, I’m like, ‘I’d rather have someone near them.’ And the second thing, rebounding out of the zone is a little harder,” Calipari said.
Calipari pointed out — correctly — that UK’s next opponent, Ole Miss, is known for its 3-point shooting: Ole Miss is 10th in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (38.7%). This was not true of UK’s opponent last weekend, Gonzaga, which ranks 184th.
“So the question would be, would (Ole Miss) move it around until they can shoot an open 3?” Calipari said. “And would that be an issue?”
Calipari, ultimately, acknowledged that a 2-3 zone could, and should, be used if Kentucky can’t contain the Ole Miss guards when they attack downhill.
The leading scorer for Ole Miss is senior guard Matthew Murrell, who averages nearly 17 points per game.
Another radio show listener, this time via email, inquired about Kentucky’s pick-and-roll defense after Gonzaga shredded the Wildcats with that action Saturday.
“We’re still not trusting each other,” Calipari said as part of a lengthy answer. “… I started saying (to UK’s bigs), ‘Just drop.’ Give them something other than a dunk. Make them shoot a layup. The team (UK) is still learning to be there for each other, trust each other, other ways you can trap, other ways you can twirl or switch. … You give up something, at some point, when you’re playing pick-and-roll.”
Calipari went on to say UK’s guards need to do a better job of fighting over screens in pick-and-roll situations and UK’s bigs were over-helping as a result.
Tre Mitchell is Kentucky basketball’s current injury concern
Through 23 games this season, Kentucky is still yet to have a full roster of players be available for a game.
In total, the Wildcats have had eight players (among those who regularly play) miss 48 combined games due to injury, illness or other availability issues.
Among Kentucky’s regular rotation players, only Jordan Burks, Antonio Reeves and Reed Sheppard have been available for every game. Of this trio, only Reeves and Sheppard have appeared in all 23 games.
Kentucky’s current injury concern is fifth-year forward Tre Mitchell, who has missed the last two games with a back injury.
Mitchell is averaging 12.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists, and has started all 21 games that he’s played in.
“You know, Tre is a warrior. He’s been a warrior for us throughout the season and for a good majority of that time he was playing, he was playing hurt. He was trying to impact the team with his will and you could see his experience, his veteranship,” Antigua, UK’s associate coach, told reporters Monday.
“He’s one of our best rebounders out there, aside from being able to (be) steady and calm everyone on the offensive end as well. He’s a big piece that’s been missing, but it also gives an opportunity for some of these other guys to step in and step up. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to be able to take advantage of those opportunities, some guys have done that.”
On his radio show Monday night, Calipari said Mitchell practiced for Kentucky on Monday, indicating the fifth-year forward could return to action against Ole Miss.
Calipari also said freshman guard D.J. Wagner practiced for UK on Monday. Wagner returned from a three-game injury absence (ankle) in Saturday’s loss to Gonzaga but played just one minute in the second half.
Figuring out rotations and on-court pairings with players constantly shifting in and out with availability issues has been a season-long struggle for Kentucky.
How have UK coaches navigated this?
“That’s every coach’s challenge when you’re dealing with injuries. … Injuries are part of the game and when someone’s out, it gives someone else the opportunity to step in,” Antigua said. “… You just have to have enough depth that you can sustain and deal with injuries as part of the process of being on the team in a long season.”
Mississippi at No. 22 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Mississippi 18-5 (5-5 SEC), Kentucky 16-7 (6-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 110-14
Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-66 on Jan. 21, 2023, in Oxford, Mississippi
Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on Kentucky men’s basketball recruiting and the UK men’s basketball team, horse racing, soccer and other sports in Central Kentucky. Drummond is a second-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter in Austin, Texas.