Louisville Courier Journal
Published 11:11 AM EST Nov 19, 2019
LEXINGTON - If 3-point shooting is really about confidence, Kentucky basketball fans can take heart in the comments of Wildcat players after an 82-74 win over Utah Valley.
Because there has been little about Kentucky’s performance in its first four games to offer that hope.
“Not at all,” sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans said when asked if he was concerned about Kentucky’s shooting. “Last year at the beginning of the season it was the same way. The way the coaches is coaching, they just coach to March. We’ve just got to keep on going. If we’re shooting bad, just get back in the gym and just work on it.”
Against Utah Valley, Kentucky hit 1 of 12 3-point attempts, dropping its season percentage to 21.3 (13 for 61). The Wolverines hit 11 of 31 3s, outscoring Kentucky 33-3 from beyond the arc.
“We had some guys that were wide open and almost shot air balls that are kids that make 3s,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So probably some of this is mental. Game in the balance, (they) are not ready to be in that position. I don't care how good you are. Maybe not ready to be in that position yet.”
Kentucky led by as many as 16 points in the second half before Utah Valley roared back to pull within one point with 3:26 remaining.
Utah Valley hit 7 of 17 3s in the second half to lead the comeback. Guard TJ Washington scored 18 points after intermission, converting 5 of 9 3s, including several from well behind the newly extended 3-point line.
Related: What effect could college basketball's new 3-point line have on Kentucky?
Calipari’s team was able to avoid a second consecutive embarrassing home upset thanks to its 31 for 34 mark at the free throw line. Kentucky made 9 of 10 free throws in the final minute. Hagans converted all six of his attempts in that stretch.
But how can a team be so successful from the free throw line and struggle so badly from beyond the arc?
“You cannot be afraid to miss,” Calipari said. “Even Nate (Sestina) was pulling back. That means you're afraid you're going to miss. You can't play that way. … Everybody that comes in here has nothing to lose. They have nothing to lose. So you know what? You have to play like you have nothing to lose.
“You have to play the same way, which is why in March we have a big advantage. But I don't know if we can get to March.”
Game recap: Kentucky basketball avoids second consecutive upset with 82-74 win over Utah Valley
This roster was supposed to be heavy on shooting, but no Kentucky player has found consistent success from 3-point range thus far.
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey starred in the season-opening win over Michigan State with 26 points while making 3 of 7 3s, but he has hit just 2 of 11 since. Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley, who shot 34.5% from 3-point range as a freshman, hit just 3 of 11 attempts (27.3%) in the first three games before missing the Utah Valley game with a chest injury.
Sestina, who shot 38% from 3-point range at Bucknell last season, is 2 for 9 (22.2%) this season. Freshman Johnny Juzang, the best shooter in the 2019 signing class, is 1 for 7 from 3-point range.
Hagans showed off improved shooting touch in preseason exhibitions and scrimmages but has missed all 9 of his 3-point attempts in regular season games.
“I have to make shots, everybody has to make shots, especially when we’re open,” Sestina said. “We practice it all the time. They’re rhythm shots. I think guys legs are just tired. My legs were a little bit tired, but it’s not an excuse for missing open shots. We’ll be good.”
More UK: Immanuel Quickley out for Kentucky basketball vs. Utah Valley
Utah Valley coach Mark Madsen dismissed any concern about Kentucky’s 3-point shooting, pointing to his own team’s inconsistency in the early season and the adjustment across the country to the new 3-point line, which was extended by just more than a foot in the offseason.
Asked if the new line was a factor in his team’s shooting, Calipari quipped, “Doesn’t seem like anybody else is having a problem with it.”
Calipari and Hagans are correct that last season’s Kentucky team also struggled from 3-point range early.
That team hit just 8 of 31 (25.8%) of its attempts in the first two games but hit at least 35.7% in each of the next three games. Inconsistency from long range plagued the 2018-19 Wildcats throughout the year with 14 games worse than 30% and 12 better than 40%.
While Calipari has long stressed his teams do not need to rely on 3s to win games, he said he wants his team to average around 20 3-point attempts per game. The Wildcats ability to get to the free throw line should open plenty of attempts from beyond the arc.
“I don't want to shoot 30,” Calipari said. “That's not how we play. … You don't have to make every shot. You just can't miss them all.”
Against Utah Valley, Kentucky technically met that goal, converting one 3. Perhaps as the season progresses, the Wildcats shooters will find their rhythm, and these worries will be forgotten by March.
But last season’s slow start Calipari and Hagans pointed to as reason for hope also offers reason for concern. Any team that inconsistent from beyond the arc is vulnerable on a poor shooting night in March, and Kentucky was eventually upset by Auburn in the NCAA Tournament in a game it made just 5 of 21 3s.
“It’s dangerous,” Hagans said. “You don’t get 3s, the other team hitting, you might be in trouble that night. We pulled out the W (today). Just got to move on.”
Jon Hale: [email protected]; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/jonh.