Is it time to reset expectations for sluggish Kentucky basketball?
What a season for those Kentucky Wildcats. With Benny Snell and Josh Allen …
Oh wait, basketball. Hang on a minute.
There’s absolutely no way to spin the first month of Kentucky’s hoops season that doesn’t feel like a massive disappointment. The slide from No. 2 to No. 19 is part of that, but honestly, the reality of watching this team is worse than the ranking. Yes, Kentucky is 7-2, but in large part, it’s because aside form Duke, they’ve played a schedule that would embarrass a mid-major.
Kentucky certainly wasn’t impressive when it beat Southern Illinois by 12. Or VMI by 10. Or Winthrop by 13. Or Tennessee State by 15. Or when the Cats lost to Seton Hall last Saturday. Seton Hall is 6-3. It lost to Nebraska by 23. It beat Kentucky.
The knock on Kentucky isn’t that it hasn’t been elite — it’s that the Wildcats haven’t even shown more than very occasional flashes of being good. Most of the time, frankly, they’ve been bad. After nine games, most against very ho-hum competition, Kentucky has allowed their opponents to shoot 43% overall and 40% from 3-point range. The Wildcats’ opponents have nabbed more steals than Kentucky. Individual players seem to be regressing.
Should Kentucky’s expectations be deferred downward?
Yes, this isn’t a contender
Let’s be honest, this Kentucky team hasn’t been elite because it doesn’t have elite talent. Of the incoming freshman class, only Keldon Johnson (15.2 points per game, 50% shooting) has shown next-level talent, and he could stand to improve on his consistency. Shooter extraordinaire Tyler Herro is shooting 27% from 3-point range. Guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley have failed to emerge as offensive threats, and E.J. Montgomery is still not ready for prime time.
The veterans have been a mixed bag. Reid Travis is who they thought he would be — a scrapper, a hustler, and far from the most talented player on the floor. P.J. Washington can be the team’s best player (14.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game) or the most confusing (second in turnovers and leads the team in fouls). Quade Green has the most turnovers despite playing the eighth-most minutes, and Nick Richards seems to dig deeper into the doghouse every day.
Calipari would be the first to admit that he’s no Xs-and-Os wizard. He’s a coach who wins because of his ability to draw superior talent and meld it together. There’s not a ton to meld here …
Which leads to the question of whether the sport has passed Calipari by. Once the master of the one-and-done, Calipari’s current team was supposed to represent a new approach, a best-of-both-world group that would combine talent and experience. The only thing that looks new at this point is that the gap between getting the best players in the class and the second and third best guys at their positions is pretty significant. And given recent recruiting news, that might not be changing any time soon.
No, they’ll be fine by March
But at the same time, even if Kentucky isn’t awash in talent, the Wildcats have enough talent to be better than this. The lack of clarity in the backcourt has done little to settle things. Hagans and Quickley look uncertain and afraid to grab the reins. Herro has run hot and cold, and rumors of a rework of his jump shot might be more concerning than anything else for this team. Right now, Richards and Montgomery are contributing little although each has the skills to play better.
At its root level, much of basketball is about desire. Playing solid man-to-man defense isn’t something that tends to draw a ton of notice, but it’s something that Calipari hasn’t had any trouble selling, even when his teams are fundamentally flawed. His 2013 Kentucky team that lost its best player to injury and ended up in the NIT still held opponents to 39% shooting and 32% from 3-point range. If Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays, and Kyle Wiltjer could learn to play defense, why not the current group of McDonald’s All-Americans?
Which does lead to the ultimate counter: You don’t adjust expectations for Kentucky because Calipari has been here before.
Take 2011, when he had a young team that lost by 17 to Connecticut and seemingly found new ways to lose close games in the SEC. Or 2014, when Kentucky got severely outclassed by a Florida team that ran through the SEC and looked to have taken control of the league. You remember what happened in those years? Around March, the same guys who wouldn’t hustle in December, who couldn’t finish in January somehow started making plays. Aaron Harrison became the guy who made every big shot. Josh Harrellson not only got out of the doghouse, but he owned some of the most touted post players in the country. Kentucky went to the Final Four both years, and to the NCAA title game in 2014.
And so, while December has Kentucky looking out of sync and out of step, not just outmatched against Duke but probably against Tennessee or Auburn, championships aren’t won in December. History says that in a couple of months, the outlook will be much rosier. But reality also says this team is pretty awful right now.