LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky All-American forward Oscar Tshiebwe wonders if the Wildcats’ backups should play at this point in a frustrating season, just to show some fire.
For the reigning college basketball player of the year to challenge his talented teammates speaks volumes about the crisis within one of the most prestigious and successful programs in the sport.
“He plays with the people who are willing to fight, even some chaperones,” the usually affable senior said after Tuesday night’s 71-68 home loss to South Carolina. “Put people who are trying to look cute on offense where they don’t want to play defense, put them on the bench. We are here to fight and try to do something.”
Kentucky started season number 4 and was the favorite to win the Southeastern Conference, along with their own usual high expectations of a national championship. At this point, the Wildcats have a lot of work to do to get into the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The team’s passionate fan base has unleashed grief and anger on talk shows and social media, even calling for the departure of coach John Calipari. Reports that Texas has reached out to the Hall of Famer about his coaching vacancy have only fueled that once unthinkable sentiment to the point that a fan was escorted from Rupp Arena Tuesday night due to to a sign that read: “Please go to Texas. ”
Yes, it has come to that within Big Blue Nation.
Calipari will earn $8.5 million this season with $53 million remaining on a “lifetime” contract through the 2028-29 season that has no buyout. He said that this week he has not spoken to Texas and insisted that he ignore the noise.
But Calipari knows the discontent is there and it grows stronger with each disheartening defeat.
“And the fans are angry? They should be,” he said Tuesday after Kentucky’s 28-game home winning streak was snapped. “We lost at home. We don’t lose at home. We lost at home.”
Calipari also addressed the obvious: A Kentucky team that is 10-6 and 1-3 in the SEC needs to improve, starting with himself.
The Wildcats are struggling with chemistry and consistency at both ends of the court. Calipari’s strategy and recruiting are coming under harsh scrutiny. Injuries haven’t helped, though Tshiebwe is averaging 16 points and 13.1 rebounds per game following a preseason procedure on his right knee. Still, a physical Alabama squad held him to six rebounds and four points in a 78-52 blowout in which Kentucky’s starters scored just 27 points against now No. 4 Crimson Tide.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas thinks it’s too early to panic, but said the Wildcats need to step up in the second half of the season.
“This is not an X-and-O problem, this is a player problem,” Bilas said in a phone interview. “And the players have to bring more, do more collectively and individually than they have done. Some players will be more capable of doing more than others. But this is not a problem of running a different offense and all of a sudden everything gets better.”
Regardless of what needs to be done, Kentucky sports director Mitch Barnhart expressed his faith in Calipari’s ability to fix it during an interview Friday on Kentucky Sports Radio.
“We’ve battled some injury bugs, we’ve battled some confidence bugs and hopefully we can put those things behind us,” Barnhart said. “We have 14, 15 games left in the regular season and get to where we want to get to the postseason and make a run. We’re famous for doing that and Cal teams are famous for doing that.”
In a hoops-mad state that expects championships and top-three drafting year classes, the problem is Kentucky hasn’t won an NCAA championship since 2012, hasn’t reached a Final Four since going 38- 1 in the 2014-15 season or has been a serious national title contender since an overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Big Dance in 2020, and the 9-16 collapse the following year he put the Wildcats out entirely.
Tshiebwe’s phenomenal break was key to last season’s rebound, but the team was blown out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by No. 15 Saint Peter’s, considered Kentucky’s worst NCAA loss.
With the return of the 6-foot-9 Tshiebwe, there were, again, high expectations. As of now, Kentucky’s tournament resume is lacking a Quad 1 win after losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, ‘Bama and now No. 20 Missouri by double digits.
This week’s loss to the Gamecocks showed everything Kentucky has done wrong. The Wildcats never led against the SEC’s lowest-ranked team, and it took a furious rally to get within a point before failing attempts to tie it in the final seconds. Afterward, Tshiebwe lamented.
“Some of us who come in take things for granted,” he said. “I’m just telling you, (that) the coaches, they can’t do it for us. They just come up with the game plan who we’re going to rely on and how we’re going to play offense.
“We’re coming to Kentucky for a very good reason, we’ve been chasing greatness. And if you don’t come willing to fight, it’s going to be tough.”
Kentucky’s immediate outlook looks dire with a visit Saturday to No. 5 Tennessee, which won last year’s meeting 76-63 in Knoxville and four of the last six meetings overall. Nonetheless, volunteer coach Rick Barnes expects the best for the Wildcats this weekend and beyond with Calipari.
“I’m not sure he’s had his whole team together all year,” Barnes said Thursday. “One thing I do know is that their teams always improve and play their best basketball at the end of the year.”
Then the Wildcats host No. 2 Kansas, the reigning national champions, on Jan. 28 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Jayhawks will no doubt try to avenge last season’s 80-62 loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
Kentucky also has two meetings against No. 15 Arkansas and a home rematch with the Volunteers.
Considering the Wildcats lost to a South Carolina team that was drilled for 43 at home by Tennessee, they can’t afford to look past any SEC opponent. But right now, the concern is whether the Wildcats can beat one.
“Every game we play is going to be a dogfight with us being Kentucky,” forward Daimion Collins said. “We just have to fight, work hard, rebound and defend. If we do those things, we’ll win some games.”
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