It is easy to view Kentucky's 83-75 loss to UCLA on Saturday in New Orleans and think the Wildcats are in deep trouble.
However, a reminder about last December's loss to another UCLA team -- the one with Lonzo Ball -- should enable Kentucky fans to not panic.
Remember how dramatically far away from excellence the Wildcats were for much of the 2016-2017 season? Their defense was toothless against UCLA in Rupp Arena, and that same defense hadn't made a lot of progress over the next several weeks. Florida manhandled Kentucky in Gainesville, and it seemed as though Big Blue was headed for a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is a strong season for most programs, but a massive disappointment for UK. (How bad is a No. 4 seed? Think of the eternally frustrating 2002 team marked by Jules Camara's exasperating play. That was one of the least satisfying and enjoyable non-Billy Gillispie-coached Kentucky teams to watch this century. If a Sweet 16 and a No. 4 seed could be joyless, that team pulled off the improbable.)
Yet, John Calipari -- he's pretty good at his job, you know -- has learned from his 2013 crash-and-burn experience. Ever since that annus horribilis of misery and implosion, he has re-learned how to handle youthful rosters and navigate the long journey to March. His teams inevitably struggle in December and much of January. In the case of the 2014 team, those struggles continued through February. Yet, Calipari has regularly gotten the Cats turned in the right direction. Even in 2016, which marked a Round-of-32 exit to Indiana (a tough draw against a good team which played well), the Wildcats flourished in the SEC Tournament and became a better team. The 2013 disaster sharpened Calipari's instincts in terms of handling players and creating a culture of accountability. The road will be bumpy without John Walls or Anthony Davis to take over (more on that in a bit), but Calipari knows how to get the Big Blue van to the Elite Eight with a chance to play for the Final Four. Cal has failed to reach that stage of the Big Dance only twice this decade -- 2013, yes, and also 2016. If he has taught the UK fan base anything, it is to live with the ups and downs of underclassmen and have the long-term view in mind.
That big-picture focus is needed after another loss to UCLA in the month of December.
This was not inevitable, but it certainly is not hard to explain. Kentucky struggled when defending straight-line drives against Virginia Tech, so if a team ever got hot from three-point range, as UCLA did in some segments of Saturday's game against the Cats, Big Blue figured to be in trouble unless it could torch the Bruins' defense the way it smoked the Hokies. The hopeful part of the backdrop to Saturday's game for Kentucky was that with multiple UCLA players out of the picture thanks to ChinaGate, the Bruins had to shorten their rotation. Steve Alford had to ride three of his starters for 35 or more minutes. He played what was essentially a seven-man rotation (not counting table-scrap-level minutes for two other players), and the Bruins had only one frontcourt player (Thomas Welsh) who posed any threat as a scorer. Kentucky had the more potent team, and the Wildcats -- who were smart about attacking the basket and using their size against Virginia Tech -- needed to carry that approach into New Orleans.
This wasn't Rupp Arena, but the Wildcats still played before a partisan crowd and had every chance to make the environment work for them.
Instead, a young team played like a young team away from the comforts of home against an opponent which hit three-point shots in bunches.
The result was exactly the kind of contest an inexperienced team finds a way to lose.
Playing games in Rupp -- or playing games on neutral courts against less skilled teams such as Monmouth -- shielded Kentucky from game pressure over the past few weeks. This was a non-Rupp game against a formidably talented (albeit thin) UCLA side which had a lot to prove following the off-court controversies and dislocations which jolted the roster and created a very urgent situation for Alford to address. On Saturday, Kentucky truly buckled in the face of game pressure, failing to adjust to a collection of circumstances which has not been common over the past month of play.
Calipari got to the heart of the matter in his postgame remarks, sharply noting his players' propensities to eschew high-quality shots for difficult and longer ones. Kentucky failed to use its size as an advantage and force UCLA's less skilled reserve big men, Gyorgy Goloman and Alex Olesinski, to make a lot of important plays. That was the immediate tactical failure of the Cats in the Big Easy, but underlying that flaw was a bigger, more fundamental truth: On Saturday, Kentucky players looked lost for extended periods of time. In several three- or five-minute stretches, Kentucky wandered through the thickets of this game and took way too much time to regain its bearings against the Bruins. Two of those "lost sequences" came at the end of the first half and the start of the second, which enabled UCLA to turn a 37-29 deficit into a 50-39 lead. Kentucky came roaring back to tie the game, but from the 11:08 mark to the 6:48 mark of the second half -- four minutes and 20 seconds -- Kentucky scored one basket and three total points. Sloppy, hesitant and bereft of imposing frontcourt play, the Wildcats lost the ingredients they brought to the table in previous weeks.
Earlier, I had mentioned that without a John Wall or Anthony Davis, Kentucky can expect a difficult process on the road to March. This is the foremost point of concern the Cats face. They do not have a devastatingly brilliant takeover talent, the kind of player who can make a host of flaws irrelevant by transcending the moment and the opponent. Hamidou Diallo adds an important dimension to the offense and makes UK a lot harder to guard when he's on, but his ceiling doesn't come particularly close to what Malik Monk delivered last season, especially against North Carolina in December. Moreover, as limited as his jump shot was, De'Aaron Fox gave last season's Kentucky team a ballhandler who could get to the rim with regularity. That component is sorely needed on this roster, and working around such a limitation might be Calipari's biggest challenge at the offensive end of the floor.
Yet, while there is no super-duperstar -- a few "guys who can get hot," but no enormous force of nature -- on the 2017-2018 Cats, this can become a very balanced team with more than enough length on defense to bother opponents. The gradual maturation of a team is something Kentucky basketball has learned how to deliver over the course of a full season. Now that the schedule becomes both tougher and more regular, with the lulls of December fading from view (two games per week instead of one!), Kentucky will face challenges on a more constant basis... but that also means more continuous occasions for growth and development.
Kentucky might be headed for a No. 4 seed in late January once again, but an event such as this UCLA loss does own one positive element: It shows every player how far he has to go to fulfill his potential. The Wildcats can't tell themselves they have arrived. In many ways, they have just departed for a hard-to-find destination.
Their roadmap is only beginning to take shape.