The Kentucky Wildcats had a good showing against the veteran-laden Kansas Jayhawks. However, the youth and the rawness of the team is reminiscent of another talented, yet flawed team. Could this team be doomed to the same fate?
Ever since John Calipari arrived at Kentucky, fans of the Wildcats have been spoiled with top-five recruiting classes filled with future NBA pros. The rosters are usually headlined with the uber-talented freshmen, but almost always there are upperclassmen to fill the leadership roles.
For this season, the amount of experience amounts to none, with the unexpected pro declarations of Isaac Humphries and Isaiah Briscoe. That left sophomores Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel as the “vets” of the team. This is now the youngest group of players that Calipari has had, and it’s shown in the loss to Kansas, as well as close victories versus Utah Valley and Vermont.
So how good is this team going to be? And out of all the previous teams in the Calipari era for Kentucky, which one resembles the 2017-18 the most? There’s one that fits, but Kentucky fans might not like which one it is.
After winning the National Championship in 2012, Kentucky faced a huge roster turnover with their top six players, including Anthony Davis, leaving for the NBA. There were no upperclassmen returning to help out the new players coming in, and the team suffered. They not only did they go from defending champs to the NIT, they then followed it up with an embarrassing road loss at Robert Morris.
There were two key factors in their down season. First was the play on the frontcourt. The three bigs each had their own issues throughout the season. Willie Cauley-Stein provided next to nothing on the offensive end. Nerlens Noel was a tad bit better on offense, but still underwhelming. His health issues also limited his production. Kyle Wiltjer was a double-digit scorer but was also a tremendous liability on defense.
The guard-play, in general, was an issue, but the real weakness of the team was at the point guard position. Archie Goodwin was the lead ball handler on the team but only averaged 2.7 apg. The other two guards, Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, also averaged less than 3.0 apg.
Overall the team wasn’t willing to shoot the ball, finishing 282 out of 350 teams in three-point attempts. But what doomed the team, especially in close games, was their dismal free throw shooting, good for 314th in the country that fateful year.
Looking at this team, and there are some eerie similarities, even with the small sample size. Right now, the paint is anchored by freshmen Nick Richards, undersized power forward PJ Washington, and Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel. Right now there’s no one that’s a go-to player in the post to get the ball, and past history shows what a detriment that would be for the team.
As for the point guard of the team, 6’0 five-star guard Quade Green is really the only true point on the roster. So far he’s averaging double-figure scoring, but the concern lies in his 2.5 apg. An argument could be made that 6’6 guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best distributor of the team, similarly to former Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. The 16 turnovers on average is also an area of concern.
Just like the 2012-13 team, these guys don’t want to shoot threes and are just as awful from the free throw line. The issues at the charity stripe can be the difference between a number of wins and losses.
One unknown factor for this upcoming season is how tough the SEC Conference will be. During the 2012-13 season, only three teams in the league went to the NCAA Tournament, excluding the Wildcats. That season there were some good teams, but the overall mediocrity hampered the postseason hopes for many of the teams.
This year’s SEC figures to be much stronger, with several teams expected to not only make the big dance but make runs. That’s a double edged sword for this team, as there are more chances to get both good wins and added losses. With this young of a team, avoiding too many losses is key.
With all that being said, I firmly believe that Kentucky will make the tournament, maybe even comfortably. Calipari has more than earned the benefit of the doubt and will make the adjustments needed to win games. However, this is not a top-ten team as constructed, and their floor is as low as their ceiling is high.
There’s a possibility that they can make the Final Four, and there’s a chance they could be one of the first four out. We’ll have to wait a month before they face Virginia Tech, the first of several quality opponents. In the meantime, Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker will need to get healthy to provide extra depth for the Wildcats. There will be rough patches, a lot of rough patches for this team. The question will then be whether it breaks them, or toughens them up for another March Madness run.