Kentucky Basketball: So Close Yet..

January 5th, 2009
"You've got to be kidding me!!"

That was my, along with probably thousands of other UK fans, reaction to Edgar Sosa's 25-foot 3-pointer with two seconds left that secured the Cardinals win over UK on Sunday. Of all people, it was the hot-and-cold Sosa that buried the Cats in Freedom Hall, yet another frustrating big-game loss for Billy Gillispie and the Cats this year.

It was a fitting end to a thrilling game that saw two teams battling with everything they had. On one side there was Kentucky, a two-headed monster who refused to lie down, battling back from a double-digit deficit in the second half. On the other side was Louisville, using some timely three-pointers and veteran leadership to build a lead. It was a game in which Louisville never seemed to be able to pull comfortably away, even squandering a four-point lead with 30 seconds left after two careless turnovers.

But then, just when it appeared the Cats would be able to extend the game, Sosa sent Freedom Hall into a frenzy and ended the Cats' six-game winning streak with his dramatic shot. From there, the Cards were only a Michael Porter halfcourt heave away from their second consecutive victory over UK...and if you don't think that's a big deal, you haven't spent much time in this state.

However its not only the loss that is eating at UK fans today- it's the manner in which they lost. While there's certainly no shame in losing on the road to a top-25 team, the game did reveal some shortcomings that UK will need to address. Yes, it's that dreaded word again...turnovers.

In the three games leading up to Louisville, the Cats committed a total of 35 turnovers. Against the Cards' pressure on Sunday, they coughed it up 21 times, including 14 in the first half. You can't expect to win on the road when you give it up 21 times.

They forced passes. They drove the lane with no idea where to go with the ball. They left their feet to pass. They had numerous instances where Patrick Patterson or Perry Stevenson handled the ball on the perimeter or were forced to bring the ball up the court. It took all of one play for DeAndre Liggins to commit his first turnover upon entering the game. In short, the early-season problems that many fans thought were slowly going away came back with a vengeance on Sunday.

With a conference schedule full of teams that like to press and push the tempo (Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee), the Cats better find a way to take care of the ball, or they'll find themselves on the wrong side of some more scoreboards.

The Cats' lack of a third scorer was also abundantly evident throughout the game. Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson carried the load offensively for UK, combining for 50 of their 71 points. As I've noted, Meeks and Patterson are as lethal a 1-2 punch as anywhere in the nation. But is that enough?

They combined to shoot 16-32 yesterday, while the rest of the team shot just 7-17. With no reliable third scorer, the Cats' offense lacked any real flow as they simply looked to dump the ball to Meeks or Patterson and then move out of the way. Michael Porter and Perry Stevenson played well in spurts, but neither has distinguished himself as a viable offensive threat to keep teams from loading up on Patterson and Meeks.

A glance through some of the nation's top teams reveal three legitimate scorers on each. UNC (despite a loss on Sunday) trots out Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson- any of whom can go for 20 on a night. UConn features AJ Price, Jerome Dyson and Jeff Adrien, while Pitt boasts Levance Fields, Sam Young and DeJuan Blair. Having three scoring threats helps to spread the floor, which opens up the paint and frees up driving lanes...two things UK could use to their advantage with Meeks and Patterson.

However, with all of that being said, the Cats have plenty of reason to hold their head high. On the road, facing their best opponent in close to a month, they hung tough and managed to pull even with 30 seconds left in the game. They never quit fighting, and their effort was never in question. They made life tough for highly touted forward Samardo Samuels, and forced star forward Earl Clark into a miserable shooting afternoon.

So, despite what the radio-show callers may be saying, all is not lost. Yes, the turnovers need to be cured quickly, and finding a third scorer would dramatically improve the offensive flow, but these Cats aren't going to go down easy. The effort is there, and now it's just a matter of execution.

Just like on Sunday, the Cats are close- they're just not there yet.