Focus narrows after UK drops 6 of 8 games

Minutes after UK’s loss to Louisville last Saturday, senior guard Ramel Bradley said the Cats needed to put it behind them and get ready for conference play — “a clean slate,” Bradley called it.

The loss gave UK (6-7) a losing record heading into Southeastern Conference play for the first time since 1988-89. That year — former coach Rick Pitino’s first at UK — the Cats finished 14-14 and were ineligible for post-season play because of probation. Should UK finish at .500 or slightly better this season, it would miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

With the Cats fighting for their postseason lives, here are four key areas they might focus on to make a run in the SEC:

n  Do the “little things.” Opponents won the rebounding edge in six of the Cats’ seven losses. In those seven games, UK grabbed 37 less rebounds than its opponents, and rebounding has been a sore spot for Billy Gillispie all season.

On top of that, the Cats have turned the ball over 24 more times than opponents, and in five of seven losses, UK has given the ball away more than the opponent. At minus-2.23, the Cats have the worst turnover margin in the SEC.

“We have to become a much tougher team,” Gillispie said after the loss to Louisville. “We have to become a much better defensive team and we have to start getting some loose balls.”

n Expanding options beyond Patterson. Freshman Patrick Patterson has lived up to the hype surrounding him, leading the team with 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. Patterson is also averaging more than one block per game and is shooting 62 percent from the field.

But the freshman struggled against double- and triple-teams in the Louisville game, and when he did, the UK offense went stagnant. Patterson scored just six points — his lowest since he had four in the season-opener — and UK shot just 41.1 percent from the field, its third-worst outing of the season.

“We were kind of depending on Pat a little too much,” Crawford said. “That was one of Pat’s first bad games all year. We’re still confident in him; he’s one of the best players for us.”

n  Better guard play. On paper, UK guards seem to be having solid seasons. Crawford is second on the team in scoring (16.1) and Bradley (14.8) is third. Sophomore guard Jodie Meeks is fourth at 10.8 points per game and scored 21 points twice in his first four games back from pelvic and hip injuries.

In sophomore guard Derrick Jasper’s first three games back from injury, he’s averaged 6.3 rebounds and 3 assists per game.

But Gillispie isn’t happy with his guards, particularly Bradley and Crawford, UK’s only senior leaders.

“They had high numbers in scoring,” Gillispie said of the senior duo’s performance against Louisville, when Bradley and Crawford combined for 46 points. “But stepping up for us right now would be really running our team; getting us in the right spots every time, showing composure and leading our defense.”

n Avoid scoring droughts. Tied with Louisville early in the first half, the Cats went 6:34 without scoring. The Cardinals turned a tie into an 11-point lead during that span. UK then failed to make a field goal for more than seven minutes spanning from the end of the first and beginning of the second half. During that stretch, a one-point UK lead became a six-point deficit, and the Cats never got back ahead.

UK didn’t score in the first 4:05 against Gardner-Webb, falling behind 14-0. UK went more than three minutes without a field goal twice in the first half against North Carolina and a 4:47 drought early against Indiana gave the Hoosiers a lead they never relinquished.

UK will face several high-powered offenses in the SEC, including Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Ole Miss, that are capable of burying the Cats during long scoring droughts.

“We have to put more … offensive possessions together,” Gillispie said. “We haven’t done a good job of getting that done.”