The Kentucky basketball team suffered a heartbreak Tuesday night when the team lost in double OT to Michigan State at the Champions Classic. While it’s hard to find something positive in a difficult time, there’s still a lot to uncover for this season’s team. Here are the five biggest takeaways from Kentucky’s loss to Michigan State.
Five biggest takeaways from Kentucky’s loss to Michigan State
1. Oscar Tshiebwe is the most valuable player in college basketball
I’m sure this was a no-brainer for most people, but what he did last night only convinced the world of his dominance. The off-season injury situation left some questions about how he would look this year. I think Oscar answered those questions and put everyone to bed thinking he was going to take a step back.
He beat doubles, grabbed rebounds (as usual) and hit inside with ease. In his first second leg he played at his usual level and even exceeded my expectations. It’s going to be another big year for college basketball’s greatest player.
Last night Oscar scored another double-double at the Champions Classic, finishing with a team-high 34 minutes from the bench. He also scored a +/- of 12, which was the highest on the team and one of only two positive +/- grades on the team. The only downside to his performance was fouling. His presence on the pitch makes everyone so much better due to the attention he draws.
Oscar has become more agile and showed his footwork speed by defending the pick and roll at a high level. Kentucky sometimes relied a little too much on Oscar, forcing him to have the ball when it wasn’t needed. This resulted in several important turnovers, but also made others watch more than move.
I’m not sure there’s another player in the country who means more to his team than Oscar for Kentucky. Last night showed that, as highlighted by his incredible plus-minus numbers and the team essentially falling apart in overtime two without him. All of these things combine to reassure us just how important Oscar is and make him what I perceive to be the most valuable player in America.
2. More involvement from Cason Wallace
Besides Sahvir Wheeler, there aren’t many other players who can help create for others. This causes Kentucky problems when Wheeler is off the ground. Offense is based more on one-to-one comparisons with ball movement, putting players in the best position to score. Cason has the ability to be amazing two-way player with his intensity and determination to finish his special matchup.
Cason was the only other guard with more than one assist in the game last night. He showed the ability to create for others and earn his own points. However, at times I felt like more sets should be run for him, especially at half court when Wheeler was either off court or needed to take a break from ball handling duties. Once the ball was in his hands, good things happened with the Kentucky offense. Wheeler dominating the ball is definitely not a problem because he’s so good, but it can make Kentucky easier to guard.
By no means am I advocating for Cason to shoot 20 times per game or be the primary ball handler, but I am advocating for him to have more ball handling and help Wheeler create for others. It’s a small sample size, but the data shows that the more Cason, the better. I tend to agree with this data.
The lack of playmaking is a big problem with this Kentucky team. Sahvir Wheeler does everything and is key to everything Kentucky wants to do offensively. Oscar is by far the best player on the team, but it’s debatable whether Wheeler is the most important.
In the two games Wheeler has played, he has accounted for 47 and 50 percent of assisted baskets. Last year he shared those playmaking duties with TyTy Washington, but this year it’s more of a one-man show. To reach their full potential, there should be some guys helping with the gameplay and not just relying on Wheeler.
As highlighted in the second key, I think Cason Wallace should be more involved with the ball in his hands. This benefits all parties and keeps the defense off balance with two guys able to score, facilitate and control the pace. It’s a small sample size and there’s no reason to overreact just yet, but it’s something that needs improvement going into the SEC game.
4. Defend without fouling
Last night, Kentucky had four key players with four or more fouls, including Oscar Tshiebwe, who fouled from the game in first overtime. While you love the team’s aggression, they should be a little more controlled on defense. It doesn’t help continuity or rhythm when players are constantly coming in and out of the lineup due to foul issues.
Although Kentucky plays about seven to eight players, the familiarity isn’t there yet. Michigan State forced Kentucky to defend many on-ball screens, resulting in numerous handcheck fouls. The Spartans shot 27 free throws on 25 Kentucky fouls, resulting in 23 easy points. Through all of this, Kentucky was in control of the game many times and just couldn’t take the game.
Outside of fouling, I felt that Kentucky played well defensively, especially in the first half. They kept the Spartans at 34 points, forced five turnovers and only allowed them to go to the free-throw line three times. Due to foul problems on the front line, the Spartans took advantage by bringing 36 points from their front place.
The fouling was largely responsible for the groove Michigan State got into and the lack of rhythm for Kentucky. This is an important issue when Kentucky gets into the SEC game with the amount of really good front courts they’ll see at night.
5. Backcourt Production
From a backcourt perspective, CJ Fredrick will not shoot 1-9 very often, and Antonio Reeves will rarely shoot 1-7. So there is no reason to panic; However, we need to see a little more consistency from the backcourt. With Oscar getting a lot of attention, it’s very important that the guards be able to deflect shots and make the defense pay for plugging the paint.
The pace of last night’s game was slower than the previous two games. That could be a product of foul problems and Coach Calipari not wanting to get into a track meeting with less fresh players to ground. I think pace and pacing is positive for the backcourt, and it lets them play more freely instead of thinking too much in their half-court sets.
We’ve only been here for a couple of games and we all know that all of coach Calipari’s teams get better when they build chemistry and continuity. In recent history, this might be one of his weaker backcourts, but that doesn’t mean they lack talent or potential. It will just take more time for these guys to network and get comfortable with each other’s tendencies.
There has to be some balance when it comes to this Kentucky team. We know what they are capable of on the inside with Oscar and to a lesser extent Jacob Toppin. The backcourt needs to step up and complement that and last night was proof that they need to get to the same side and be more consistent. It’s a long season; I have no doubt they will get it rolling and when they do, beware.