<
>

Kentucky frontcourt not up to par with past

play
Texas A&M beats Kentucky at buzzer of OT thriller (1:37)

Tyler Davis scores on a putback at the buzzer in overtime to give Texas A&M a 79-77 win over Kentucky for the Aggies second straight win after four consecutive losses. (1:37)

Just how crazy was the way Kentucky lost to Texas A&M 79-77 in overtime?

I wasn't as crazy as you think. In fact, that could absolutely happen to the Wildcats again, in the same way, if they're not careful.

Kentucky's frontcourt wasn't up to the challenge Saturday. The Aggies ripped away 20 offensive rebounds -- which amounted to 45 percent of their missed shots -- and finished one rebound short of tying the Wildcats' season high, which was allowed against Louisville.

What? Surely, you didn't think the technical foul assessed to Isaac Humphries for spiking the ball with nine seconds left in overtime with the Wildcats leading by one was what lost the game for UK?

After the technical, an exchange of free throws (two by the Aggies and one by the Wildcats) left the score tied at 77. Then Skal Labissiere, who, fairly or not, has had his game dissected for not living up to being the No. 2 overall incoming freshman this season, helped out defensively with Texas A&M's Danuel House driving to the rim as seconds remained. That left Labissiere helpless to stop Tyler Davis from getting the winning tip-in as time expired.

Kentucky didn't even wait for officials to check the replay to make sure the shot left Davis' hands before the buzzer sounded. The Cats knew they were finished.

In all, Texas A&M scored 22 second-chance points. The Aggies' season was close to collapsing; they had lost four of five games entering Saturday. They needed to beat Kentucky, and maybe their relentless aggression in going after missed shots was a byproduct of their sense of urgency.

The win puts the Aggies right back in the SEC race -- in a three-way tie with South Carolina and LSU for second and one game behind Kentucky. More importantly, beating a ranked team could serve as a confidence boost for the Aggies as they finish the regular season.

Giving up second-chance opportunities seems to be a developing trend for Kentucky. Over the past 10 games, UK has allowed opponents an average of 13.3 offensive rebounds. Teams averaging that many offensive boards rank in the top 30 nationally.

Let's note that senior forward Alex Poythress remains out of the lineup and Derek Willis suffered an ankle injury and played only 20 minutes against the Aggies. But it should also be noted that Poythress' pending return to the lineup won't automatically cure the frontcourt's ills.

Poythress sat out games against Florida and Georgia before the school announced he had "minor" surgery on his right knee and was expected to miss two weeks. The senior forward hasn't played since a loss at Tennessee on Feb. 2. If all goes well, Poythress, who was averaging 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds, would be back for the Cats' game next Saturday at Vanderbilt. By that point, he will have sat out six games, and a knee injury isn't something players easily transition back from -- no matter how minor the procedure.

Poythress' absence has magnified another frontcourt problem for Kentucky. Unlike in past seasons under coach John Calipari, the Wildcats don't have a reliable post presence.

It seems downright absurd to think of Kentucky as having a limited frontcourt. If there's one thing that has epitomized Calipari's tenure in Lexington, it is an abundance of big men on whom the Wildcats have been able to depend, from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to (pre-injury) Nerlens Noel to Karl-Anthony Towns.

That's not the case now. Labissiere and Willis seem much more comfortable stepping outside the paint to take shots. The emergence of Willis at least solidified the starting lineup after the Auburn loss, at a time when Kentucky's season could have imploded. But the makeup of the frontcourt offensively is such that a lot of pressure to consistently make shots falls on Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. They've been able to carry the team this far, but without someone inside to generate high-percentage baskets, how far will that translate come March?

Since Poythress has been out, Calipari has filled the void in the rotation with Humphries. The 7-foot freshman had never had more than six rebounds in a game until he totaled a season-high 12 against Texas A&M. He's showing signs of improvement, but as the final seconds Saturday showed, he's still new to this. In fact, he has played in only 15 games this season.

Junior forward Marcus Lee has played in every game this season, and he has fouled out in nearly a third of them, including the game against Texas A&M, which marked his sixth time being disqualified. Lee has to do better. Even if he scores only on lobs, his presence on the floor is critical, as he is the team's best shot-blocker and second-leading rebounder behind Poythress.

A win over Texas A&M would have given Kentucky a two-game cushion in the SEC standings. That win was only a rebound away, and without it, the conference race just got tighter.