Dr. Michael Huang Photo
It hasn’t been a November to remember for Kentucky.
The Wildcats have two losses in their first five games, both coming in the past six days. The tumble began following late-game breakdowns in an 86-77 double-overtime loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday. An 88-72 loss to No. 2 Gonzaga Sunday night will most likely drop the fourth-ranked Wildcats (3-2) out of the top 10 when the rankings are released Monday.
The showdown in Spokane featured two of the top players in college basketball and the largest crowd in Spokane Arena history. Big crowds and the big stage historically haven’t been an issue for Kentucky. An 80-62 win over eventual national champion Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, last year supports that evidence.
In the battle between the two top players in the East and West Coast, Kentucky standout Oscar Tshiebwe posted a double-double with 20 points and 15 rebounds, while the Zags’ top player — Drew Timme — scored 22 points and collected seven rebounds. Tshiebwe was more dominating individually, but his teammates were not when it mattered the most.
The difference was the support Timme received from his teammates. Two Gonzaga players finished with 20 or more points, while Tshiebwe didn’t get the same production from his backcourt and it showed.
In the first half alone, Kentucky’s guards made just two field goals on 17 attempts from the field, a stark difference from the numbers the Wildcats posted in a 106-63 rout of South Carolina State last Thursday night at Rupp Arena.
Making his first start this season, Tshiebwe carried the Wildcats on his shoulders through the rough waters of first half, even as the hosts built a lead that reached 18 points at one time in the first 20 minutes.
Gonzaga simply couldn’t miss, while Kentucky struggled from the field. The Wildcats missed all 10 of their shots from long range in the opening half and didn’t connect on a 3-pointer until the second half. A trey by CJ Fredrick and ignited a rally that featured back-to-back threes by Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves pulled the Wildcats within four with 13 minutes remaining, but that’s as close as Kentucky could get down the stretch.
The two setbacks aren’t costly for the Wildcats this early in the season, considering there are four months remaining before another national champion is crowned. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Tshiebwe will be in the conversation for Player of the Year yet again, but the team’s overall success will depend in the rest of the cast.
During the first four games of the season, 42% of the team’s scoring came from the perimeter and they didn’t make shots until the second half while in desperation mode against the Zags. The guards have proven they can score, but will need to seek consistency moving forward.
It’s a long season. Remember, it’s just November.