Kentucky basketball: From No. 1 to huh? What’s wrong with UK (and how it might be fixed)
A week ago, your humble columnist, fresh off Kentucky’s impressive victory over previously No. 1 Michigan State and a thumping of Ohio Valley Conference foe Eastern Kentucky, wrote a column on why Kentucky might stay in the top spot for a while.
The next 2 games were a shocking home loss to the University of Evansville and an ugly avoidance of disaster in an 82-74 victory over Utah Valley. So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing, depth. John Calipari has only 10 scholarship players, including a freshman who will miss the season with a torn ACL. Of his 9 remaining players, UK played the past 2 games without sophomore power forward E.J. Montgomery, who has a minor leg injury. The Utah Valley game was played without starting sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley, sidelined with a chest injury. Against Evansville, guard Ashton Hagans was awful, dealing with a leg injury of his own.
Calipari has a handful of walk-ons, but those guys are more warm bodies than legitimate prospects. He might have to borrow Lynn Bowden from Mark Stoops’ football Wildcats. Playing with only 7 or 8 players has definitely hamstrung Kentucky. Fortunately, none of the injuries, aside from freshman Dontaie Allen’s ACL tear, is serious.
Another problem from the Evansville game was rebounding. Giving up more offensive rebounds than they garnered (11- 8 on the offensive glass, 38-35 overall), Kentucky was punchless inside against an undersized Purple Aces team. With Montgomery gone, Kentucky has one true post player (junior center Nick Richards, who can alternate between brilliance and cluelessness) and a couple of reluctant scrappers, both of whom are adjusting to new levels of play (Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina and freshman Keion Brooks). That particular matter had clearly been a focus leading up to the Utah Valley game, as Kentucky controlled the boards 46-27. But even with Montgomery (who should be back in another game or two), UK will have some struggles on the glass, particularly against more athletic or physically stout opponents (think SEC).
Another difficulty is creating offense. Guard Tyrese Maxey looked like an All-American against Michigan State, but he shot 4-for-14 against Utah Valley. Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans, when healthy, can be a great finisher at the rim (he had 26 points against Utah Valley), but his perimeter shooting is uncertain and he can struggle with turnovers. Freshmen Kahlil Whitney, Brooks and Johnny Juzang often look like baby deer, prancing and athletic, but without a whole lot of an idea what exactly they’re doing. If he can stay focused and out of foul trouble, Nick Richards might be UK’s most consistent offensive player.
The ultimate problem, though, is that it’s November. Maxey, Hagans and Quickley can be one of the best backcourts in the nation. If Richards and Montgomery can play well in the frontcourt, Sestina and Brooks can add depth and Kentucky could once again be a giant-killer that took down Michigan State.
But after 2 ugly games, one of them a near-historic defeat, Kentucky also has to accept that if it doesn’t tighten up some things, get a few key contributors healthy, and make steady improvement over the next few months, they might end up in March as the giant being killed.