Kentucky men's basketball lacks chemistry. Why the Wildcats are confident they can find it

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sitting behind the microphone Wednesday night following an 89-75 loss to Missouri, Kentucky men's basketball forward Oscar Tshiebwe didn't hesitate when asked about the team's chemistry — or lack thereof.

Twelve games into the 2022-23 season, Tshiebwe said the Wildcats' cohesiveness isn't where it should be.

Not even close.

"I think we've got a lot of work we've got to do, because we understand that the coaches have done a great job for us," said Tshiebwe, who had another dominant performance in the loss, leading Kentucky with 23 points and grabbing a game-high 19 rebounds. "We were expecting to win. We just got killed in a lot of one-on-one (matchups) and 3-point shooting. Me myself, I've got to step up. … I've got to do better."

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Wednesday was just the third time UK lost its opening SEC game in John Calipari's 14-year tenure. After dropping to 8-4 this season, Calipari said improvement is required beyond just Tshiebwe's critical self-assessment.

"I think we've got good players," Calipari said, "but some guys aren't playing great."

That both Tshiebwe and Calipari were willing to call out the team in such a public manner is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, it's concerning a group that began its 2022-23 campaign as the No. 4 team in both preseason polls — and a trendy pick to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 — has so many issues to address with just one conference game in the books.

Conversely, the fact Calipari and the reigning national player of the year can acknowledge that issues exist proves they're not oblivious to their current plight.

The Wildcats continue to struggle at the free-throw line in high-profile games, as they did Wednesday, when they made just 15 of their 24 attempts. The upperclassmen, aside from Tshiebwe, are maddeningly inconsistent. (The senior trio of CJ Fredrick, Antonio Reeves and Jacob Toppin combined for just eight points in the loss, all from Reeves.) Three-point shooting comes and goes at inopportune times; UK went 2-for-12 beyond the arc in Wednesday's first half.

At least the Wildcats believe the problems are solvable.

"I haven't lost any faith. I've been through tough stuff," Calipari said. "I knew this would be a hard game, but I thought we would play better. I knew (Missouri) would play better, because they just beat Illinois and they're making shots and they're being aggressive."

The Tigers' intensity was evident time and again Wednesday, as they tied up the ball at every opportunity. Twice, UK and Mizzou players had to be separated after fighting for the ball long after the whistle. But it was evident the Tigers (12-1) always were the aggressor — and that's meant as a compliment.

"We've got to be stronger," Tshiebwe said. "We cannot just let people come in and bully, bully, bully us like we're little kids. We've got to get better, we've got to get better."

Calipari knew his team was in for one of its toughest battles of the season, owing to the Tigers' experience. And that proved true Wednesday: of the 11 players who took the floor for Mizzou during the 14-point win, nine are upperclassmen (juniors and older).

"They have played physical most of the year. They're gonna bump and grind," Calipari said. "We had a couple guys who, when the game got physical, they couldn't be in there. And so that's what I did. (I said), 'OK, who will fight? Who's going to battle?' And that's who I put in."

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While the team isn't where it wants to be yet, Tshiebwe remains hopeful.

"I've got to grab my team, we've got to get together and figure this out. We've got special talents," he said. "We've just got to come together as a team. We've got to know when we've got to take a good shot. We've got to know when we've got to slow it down, because it seems like we're rushing many, many shots. But we're going to get there."

Calipari possesses that same belief.

"I still like the group. I like the locker room. We're a work in progress," he said. "There are things we've got to do that we're not doing. But I grabbed a couple of guys afterward, by themselves, with me, (saying), 'Are you OK? I love you. You've got to play better.' But losing stinks. I can't stand it. But we've got to step up to the plate."

Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at rblack@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Oscar Tshiebwe confident Kentucky men's basketball can find chemistry