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Bob Dixon

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JOE COX: Postgame Comments Tell Story in Shocking Kentucky Loss


Kentucky’s 71-68 loss to South Carolina sent shock waves through college basketball. USC, under first-year coach, Lamont Paris, has struggled through the season to date, losing games to Tennessee by 43, to Colorado State by 32, to George Washington by 24, and to Furman by 19, among others. But Carolina shot 11-for-20 from three-point range and outrebounded Kentucky 32-28 to gain the upset. With the loss, UK ended Tuesday night tied for 12th in the 14-team SEC, outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble, and in danger of another shockingly bad season.


The Wildcats were without Jacob Toppin, suffering from a minor injury, and lost starting guard Cason Wallace to back spasms after the freshman played just eight minutes. But the Wildcats fell to 10-6 on the season and 1-3 in SEC play, picking up a devastating loss which is not accompanied on the UK resume by any quality wins.


More upsetting than the results has been the lackluster manner in which they’ve been delivered. It’s one thing for Kentucky to lose to Michigan State or Gonzaga (which they did). It’s another to see the Wildcats defeated by Missouri and South Carolina, a pair of programs that hired new coaches last offseason to undertake rebuilding measures. Those rebuilding measures now include upsets of Kentucky.


While X and O analysis of Kentucky’s loss can yield some answers to what exactly is wrong, the biggest red flag came not from Kentucky’s awful halfcourt defense or struggles to find an effective power forward. The comments from both teams probably yielded an inadvertent glimpse behind the struggles of this Kentucky basketball season.


After the game, South Carolina forward Hayden Brown was reminded of an answer he gave at SEC Media Day, when he admitted that he was looking forward to playing in Rupp Arena. Brown is a 6-foot-5 graduate transfer who scored 1,402 points at The Citadel before joining Paris’ first Gamecock squad. An undersized post player, Brown gets by on moxie and perimeter shooting ability. He had 11 points and 5 rebounds before fouling out in the closing minutes of Carolina’s win in Lexington.


Brown remembered his comments, and admitted that it was personally significant to pick up a win “on the biggest stage.” But he moved past that, and said that personal experience aside, it was a team matter for Brown and the Gamecocks.


“I love seeing each and every one of the men in that locker room smile,” said Brown. “That’s what I came to South Carolina for -- however I could help and assist to make that happen.”


Meanwhile, across the hall, a few minutes later, Brown’s transfer counterpart, defending National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, was singing a different tune.


Tshiebwe admitted, “Some of my teammates are not willing to fight.” He confessed to begging Calipari to put walk-ons in the game, in the interest of finding some sort of spark for the struggling Wildcats.


Yes, Tshiebwe had 19 points and 12 rebounds. But he also has struggled badly in pick and roll defense, and missed some key shots down the stretch of the game himself. But while Brown was admitting his satisfaction at bringing joy to his teammates and coaches, Tshiebwe was calling his out for a lack of commitment.


Tshiebwe’s coach, John Calipari, noted a few minutes earlier, “It’s hard here. I mean, I always say, this isn’t for everybody. Including coaches.”


It’s fair to wonder if the Kentucky job isn’t for Calipari anymore, as UK has struggled through massive disappointments throughout the last three seasons under his leadership. But it’s also fair to wonder if some of Calipari’s biggest lessons just aren’t hitting home.


For the coach who wrote an actual book praising the virtues of servant leadership, a look at those postgame comments might prove instructive. Yes, Brown was speaking after a significant win. But he also took questions from the media days earlier, after a 43-point loss, and looked back on that loss Tuesday night, clarifying his determination in that moment that the loss would not define his team. And yes, Tshiebwe has been an excellent player and is speaking from a place of deep disappointment.


But until Calipari’s Wildcats rediscover the purpose of helping each other and finding fulfillment in the team concept, this UK team is spinning its wheels. And those wheels may well end up driving Calipari out of town.


Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written or co-written nine books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at jrcox004@gmail.com.

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