LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the third time in 11 days, Kentucky fans filled Rupp Arena to its rafters and made a thunderous noise for the better part of two hours on Saturday, cheering deliriously for another offensive eruption and roaring desperately as they implored a flimsy defense to finally make its stand.
The deafening sound felt like both an appreciation for these Wildcats’ considerable gifts, the way they can go supersonic at one end and erase so many mistakes on the other, and a recognition of what feels more every day like a fatal flaw. Some 20,000 people kept rising and roaring, in hope and fear, sensing that this might well be the pivotal moment in a season suddenly teetering.
There was a distinctive tone in their wailing: Please pull this one out.
But for the third time in 11 days, those fans shuffled somberly — or in some cases, angrily — toward the exits after yet another loss. Like Florida and Tennessee before it, Gonzaga overcame everything Kentucky does well and exploited so many things the Cats don’t, and the Bulldogs won a shootout (89-85) to make history. The Wildcats have lost three in a row at Rupp, which opened in 1976, for the first time … ever.
As the place emptied Saturday, one fan screamed loud enough to be heard, “F— you, Cal!” Other red-faced fans shouted indecipherable things at John Calipari as the coach trudged into the tunnel.
Passion can turn poisonous when a proud program spirals, and Kentucky (16-7) is officially in a tailspin. The Wildcats have lost four of six games since rocketing into the AP top 10 and briefly becoming a popular Final Four pick. Now? Without their neutral-site win over North Carolina almost two months ago, they would be squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Their only other Quad 1 win was more than a month ago at Florida.
They just lost to Gonzaga’s worst team in years, one that picked up its only Quad 1 win of the season Saturday in Lexington.
“I want to tell our fans how much I appreciate what they are doing for this team — or what they are trying to do,” Calipari said. “I would just say stick with them.”
It’s obvious the fans want to. There’s a lot to love about this Kentucky team, which is never really out of a game with the way it scores. And there’s something to be said for never lying down, always making a run, giving itself a chance until the bitter end. These Cats do that. But at some point, this team has to finish the job. At some point, it can’t just shrug its shoulders at the defensive ineptitude. At some point, it would be useful to come out swinging, not show up flat as a pancake.
Kentucky trailed Kansas 11-3, Texas A&M 15-8, Tennessee 13-3 and Gonzaga 13-6. It made a run in all those games. It lost them all. Sure, the end-game execution needs work, too, but digging an early hole over and over is no way to set the rules of engagement.
The Wildcats fell behind by 13 points in the first half and trailed by a dozen early in the second half Saturday. They roared back, per usual, to lead by six with 12:30 to go, but think about how much energy that requires.
“We just can’t get punked in the first four minutes,” senior guard Antonio Reeves said. “Just need to lock in more at the beginning of games, try to throw the first punch, try to figure that out.”
If only that was all Kentucky needs to figure out. There’s a pretty clear template to beat these Cats, and Gonzaga followed it to perfection.
Calipari’s good friend Mark Few directed his team to pound the ball inside, crash the glass, put a porous defense in pick-and-rolls and watch all three of UK’s 7-footers make like statues trying to stop it. Gonzaga got 50 points in the paint, where Graham Ike owned the Wildcats, and outrebounded Kentucky 43-31.
Even when the home team managed to play sound defense and force a miss, the Bulldogs often retained possession. They collected 18 of their own 36 misses.
That’s where the game was lost, not on an errant lob pass Reed Sheppard threw to Adou Thiero with five seconds left and a chance to tie. Sheppard scored 21 points and brought Kentucky to the brink of a comeback victory with a series of dazzling plays that preceded the too-low toss, which was an iffy play call in that situation anyway. The defensive effort hurt a lot more than the offensive execution on Saturday, per usual.
“It is just disappointing we got beat to so many balls,” Calipari said. “I think we are better than that.”
But are they? The Cats have a top-five offense nationally — and they have the best 3-point shooting team in America — but they now rank 120th in adjusted defensive efficiency, 169th in offensive rebound percentage and 234th in defensive rebound percentage. The same things keep hurting Kentucky over and over again, and the same kinds of answers follow every time.
Thiero, one of the few Wildcats who looked to be up to the physical challenge Saturday, believes there’s toughness inside this team.
“We just gotta find it, though,” he said. “When the lights come on, we gotta be able to flip that switch.”
If not, the lights could go out on this once-promising season in a hurry. Kentucky still has to play road games against Auburn and Tennessee, and it’ll host an Alabama team with the No. 1 offense in college basketball. Think Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes (again) and Nate Oats might have solid plans to push hard on all the Wildcats’ pressure points?
It’s not hard to imagine UK limping into the NCAA Tournament with double-digit losses and a disappointing seed line that would add an extra degree of difficulty to making a deep run in March. Kentucky hasn’t made a tournament run since 2019, and this was supposed to be the star-studded roster to change that. Maybe it still will be, but Calipari seems to have more questions than answers.
On ball-screen defense: “Believe me, we are working on it.”
On leaving super scorer Rob Dillingham glued to the bench in the second half of a shootout: “The team that was out there was playing so well together that I left it alone.”
On inconsistency in his team’s toughness: “I wish I had the answers.”
On the season imploding before his eyes: “Thank goodness we have time.”
There are only eight regular-season games and about a month left to figure out some of these issues. Getting DJ Wagner back Saturday — in a limited capacity — certainly helps. Kentucky sorely needs starting senior forward Tre Mitchell to return as soon as possible. Few noted how much better Mitchell makes the Cats and how Gonzaga exploited his absence Saturday. It’s true they still haven’t played a single game this season with every scholarship player available. If that ever happens, maybe Calipari will have enough to win these games.
Few was more optimistic for his pal than the thousands of dejected Kentucky fans zombie-walking out of a historic loss.
“I see a lot of potential,” Few said. “I see a lot. I thought I saw two really, really good teams out there making plays at the highest level, and I think (Kentucky) is going to be fine.”
For many, that’s the problem. Fine isn’t the standard here. And three straight home losses are not fine at all.
(Top photo of John Calipari: Jeff Moreland / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)