Kentucky basketball: Glass half-full or half-empty?
As the end of January approaches, Kentucky basketball is dangerous … to the rest of the NCAA, potentially to an NCAA Tournament bracket, but also to itself. Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Kentucky is really good. On a given night, the Cats can take down a Louisville or a Michigan State and they can win at Arkansas.
But also, Kentucky’s not really good. On another given night, Kentucky can lose to Evansville (whose coach didn’t even survive January, despite that win) or at South Carolina.
Kentucky (14-4 and ranked No. 15) feels like a team that’s destined to shred brackets, either with a surprising run to the Final Four or a surprising loss to a mid-major in the 2nd round. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Well … yes.
Why Kentucky is good
Kentucky’s fabulous four have emerged — guards Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey, along with junior center Nick Richards. The four average from 13.3 to 13.7 points per game, and each has shown his skill-set can be dominant. Hagans is the efficient offensive leader who leads the SEC in assists (7.3) and is 2nd in the league in steals. Quickley has become a dependable perimeter threat, shooting at nearly 40% from 3-point range and also shooting at over 90% from the foul line. Maxey is a threat off the dribble as a scorer and playmaker, and has shown the ability to create points in a hurry. Meanwhile, Richards, who shoots nearly 70% from the floor, has grown much more consistent as a low post threat.
Kentucky is developing a group of role players to round out the roster — with talented but disappearing sophomore forward E.J. Montgomery and athletically limited grad transfer Nate Sestina seeing plenty of minutes. Freshman forward Keion Brooks is also coming on, and if guards Kahlil Whitney or Johnny Juzang can add some offensive punch, all the better.
The Wildcats can scrap defensively, holding opponents to 38.7% shooting and 29.2% from 3-point range. They’re surprisingly sharp at the foul line, shooting 76.7%. As long as most of the fabulous four are playing well, and they can get minutes from somebody else, the Wildcat attack is capable.
Why Kentucky is not good
Relying on Kentucky’s main four requires a massive amount of consistency from a freshman, a non-shooting point guard, a foul-prone center and a guy who struggled to score 5 points per game last year. Richards is the player most prone to bad games — in UK’s 4 losses, he averages 7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game — roughly half of his normal averages. Hagans struggles with forcing an inconsistent jump shot — he shot 13-for-42 in UK’s losses. Quickley and Maxey have been more consistent, but without three of UK’s main four playing well, UK struggles to score.
Kentucky’s depth is non-existent. Montgomery is consistently outmuscled and Sestina lacks SEC-level athleticism. Brooks is the best complementary player, but he struggles to create his own offense and can get lost defensively. Whitney and Juzang are still awaiting their first meaningful contribution.
More than any Calipari team, injuries could be a major problem. Kentucky has lost Sestina, Montgomery and Juzang for portions of the season. Kentucky struggles to initiate offense without Hagans and has no dependable post presence without Richards. Rebounding can be a major flaw. Kentucky is 0-3 when getting beat on the backboard. UK also struggles with turnovers, turning the ball over more than opponents for the season.
Which side wins out in March?
How consistent can Hagans and Richards be? Can Cal develop a reliable 5th player? If the answers are “very” and “yes,” then life looks good for Kentucky. It’s a league and a nation full of parity. Kentucky doesn’t have to field a team of 8 stars to win games in March.
On the other hand, if Hagans starts forcing jump shots and getting into foul trouble, look out. If UK doesn’t establish Richards in the low block, then the offense becomes heavily dependent on perimeter shooting. The Wildcats made 1 3-pointer in their win over Georgia — they don’t fare well in a H-O-R-S-E game.
The X-factor is probably the tougher games in SEC play, particularly on the road. March inevitably brings a game (or two) when any given team will find itself down by 6 or 8 points, in a position to either rally back into the game or fall badly behind. See how Kentucky does at Texas Tech and at Auburn in its next two Saturday road tests … and then remember that there’s still a long way to go.