Loss at South Carolina stamps Wildcats with huge question mark

Throughout this Kentucky basketball season, which took a bizarre, most unlikely turn in Columbia Saturday afternoon, we’ve spent week after week trying to decide what this Kentucky team really is.

Unbeatable? Uh, hardly. Turns out, that moniker belongs (so far) to Wichita State.

Top 10 power? Not for a couple of months now.

Southeastern Conference contender? Florida has made the SEC its personal plaything.

Final Four candidate? Only in that it’ll make the NCAA tournament field, where every team (theoretically, anyway) has a chance.

We won’t know for certain what this team is until they put the basketballs in storage for the last time. It’s always easy to look back and figure things out. But following the loss to South Carolina, we have a pretty good idea of what it’s not.

It isn’t one of the best in the storied tradition of the sport. The highly-touted recruiting class gave hope to some that this team would do wonderful things – even though it arrived on campus only months after another sweetly-praised group of freshmen saw their season end with an embarrassing thud in the first round of the NIT.

It isn’t tough. South Carolina is one of the worst teams in the league, but the Gamecocks, outmanned at every position, bellied up to the Wildcats and took their lunch money. Yes, Kentucky very nearly snatched it back, but it never should have been in that position in the first place.

Arkansas and LSU both entered Rupp Arena within a few days of one another and slapped around the Cats, who did manage a last-second win over the Tigers. But the Razorbacks walked out with a victory, their second upset of Kentucky this season.

The LSU comeback gave the Big Blue Nation hope. But at a time when a tournament seeding is on the line, the Wildcats have wilted. If not for a Julius Randle putback in overtime, the Cats would be trying to recover from a fourth straight loss, heading into March Madness.

It isn’t consistent defensively. UK seemed powerless when it came to on-ball defense Saturday. The Gamecocks repeatedly beat the Wildcats to the rim. USC helped the Cats with their late comeback by settling for jump shots. But the Gamecocks built the early lead by attacking the basket, and locked up the win by doing the same thing.

Willie Cauley-Stein has been a defensive presence whenever he’s played well enough to string together minutes. But nobody has developed into a stopper, worthy of comparison to DeAndre’ Liggins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. James Young looked to be an early candidate, but his defensive development seems to have stalled.

The Gamecocks also took advantage of a weakness other teams have exposed consistently all season long: Kentucky’s lack of transition defense. SC several times scooted down the floor for easy buckets, racing past UK players who didn’t seem concerned about what was happening around them.

It isn’t a good shooting team. Minus low post players Julius Randle, Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, the Wildcats are hitting just 41 percent of their field goal attempts (32 percent from behind the arc).

The Cats landed a miserable 17 percent in the first half in Columbia, 26 percent for the game, unusually bad numbers even for this team. But the offensive game plan once again seemed to be, drive the ball into the paint, where at least three defenders were waiting, and throw it at the rim.

It failed Kentucky time after time in Columbia, including a possession with 2:18 left, the Wildcats down 61-56. Aaron Harrison drove the lane and threw one up over three defenders, his shot caroming off the bottom of the backboard on the opposite side of the rim. The Gamecocks lost the rebound out of bounds; with 12 seconds left on the shot clock, the best Kentucky could manage was an awkward three-point try by Randle just before the buzzer. Cauley-Stein grabbed the offensive rebound but in the process, fouled out of the game.

They traded points until, with 40 seconds left and South Carolina up 66-61, Young, who already had been described by ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes as, “the worst passer in the SEC,” turned the ball over for the fifth time, sealing the Wildcats’ fate.

So now a UK team that three weeks ago had an eye on a three seed, or possibly a two, is looking at a six or seven according to some of the prognosticators. It still has the capability of improving its chances at a better seed, but the Wildcats are going to have to figure things out, and soon.

They have the talent to make a deep run through the post season. But they have to make their stand and decide: Exactly what kind of team is this? We know what it’s not.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)