Two blunders in the final minute of a 71-69 loss at Ole Miss on Tuesday night again raised questions about whether this youthful Kentucky team has the leadership needed to win close games on the road.
First came a shot clock violation in which junior Darius Miller passed up a wide-open corner 3-pointer that could have clinched the game for Kentucky and DeAndre Liggins lost track of how much time was left on the clock. Then on Ole Miss' final possession, the Wildcats allowed Chris Warren to come off a screen and hit an open 25-footer to win the game even though everyone in the arena knew he'd be the Rebels' first option.
Many Wildcats fans thought Terrence Jones should have given Warren less space on the screen and forced him to drive, but Kentucky coach John Calipari said he had no problem with how the freshman forward defended the play.
"We told him, don't try to block it," Calipari told the Lexington Herald Leader. "Because the kid will ball fake and get you to foul. He's a 95 percent foul shooter (actually, 93.9 percent). If he's going to make a tough shot, let him make it over us."
The loss to Ole Miss is Kentucky's third in four road games in SEC play, the first two of which came at Georgia and at Alabama. Next up for the Wildcats (16-5, 4-3) is another road test at first-place Florida (17-5, 6-2), which could open a commanding lead on Kentucky with a victory on Saturday.
Although freshman-heavy Kentucky has been constructed similarly the past two years under Calipari, one of the biggest differences between last year's and this year's team has so far been its poise late in close games.
Kentucky went 8-2 in games decided by six or less points last season thanks to a myriad of clutch plays by freshmen who seemed to relish those late-game situations. Option No. 1 down the stretch was always John Wall, but Eric Bledsoe had six game-sealing free throws against Louisville and DeMarcus Cousins put back Wall's errant jumper as time expired in the SEC title game last season to force overtime.
This year's Wildcats have not had such good fortune late in tight games, whether it's a result of their youth, their lack of leadership or simply bad luck.
Kentucky is 2-4 in games decided by seven or less points this year. That's likely a stat that will have to change if the Wildcats are going to accomplish their goals of winning the SEC and making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.