Another slow Kentucky start does not mean Wildcats’ season is doomed
If there were not panic from Lexington to Leitchfield, from Campbellsville to Caneyville, from Hazard to Hardinsburg and Wingo to West Liberty, this would not be college basketball season.
This is how it works, pretty much on an annual basis: 1) The season starts; 2) Kentucky loses to a less celebrated opponent and 3) Its statewide fan base reacts as though all of this is not familiar at all.
Last season, a Kentucky team that concluded the season with a 25-6 record and a Southeastern Conference championship that it claimed by three games over the closest competitors lost to Evansville in its third game and was 8-3 before Christmas.
The year before, UK was beaten by 125 in its opening game, in the Champions Classic against Zion Williamson and Duke. OK, it was really only 34 points. It felt, to a national television audience, to those assembled and to everyone participating, like the most lopsided game since Naismith hung up his peach baskets. That Wildcats team won 30 games and lost in overtime in the Elite Eight.
This is how it goes at Kentucky. Every time. The Wildcats have begun most every year under John Calipari overrun by freshmen, and those freshmen have needed time to adjust to the demands of Division I basketball, and after they’ve adjusted they generally have been excellent.
This feels different, for the Wildcats to be sitting at 1-3 after four games, riding a three-game losing streak and falling far from the top 25. There are reasons it is. There are reasons it isn’t. Rather than jump to any conclusions, though, how about we look at each category?
Why it’s different
The pandemic. The season fundamentally has been altered by COVID-19, even for teams that have yet to experience their own shutdown. As a team with seven freshmen and three first-year transfers, Kentucky would have benefited from the two exhibitions — and even the Blue-White public scrimmage — that traditionally are part of the schedule.
It also would have helped for Calipari to present this team with a manageable schedule. With the season truncated by several games, he chose to line up only two against mid-major programs out of the 27 games — nine non-conference, 18 in the SEC.
“I knew it was a mistake,” Calipari said Sunday, raising the question of why he went ahead and did it. He believes this sort of schedule can make the Wildcats better, but there really is nowhere for them to hide between now and Selection Sunday.
Point guard. The Wildcats signed Devin Askew out of Mater Dei last November, so they had to believe he would become a successful player. This is the program that produced John Wall, Tyler Ulis, De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, so it’s not as though the Wildcats don’t understand what to look for in a playmaker.
Through Askew’s first four games, though, he has compiled 13 turnovers and only eight assists. Expected to be a proficient 3-point shooter, he has tried only eight long-distance shots. He either lacks the capacity to penetrate past defenders or the confidence to try. He might have been able to overcome these issues against lesser opponents, but there are no lesser opponents.
Kentucky also has Creighton transfer Davion Mintz, whose talent may not be as grand but who has produced better numbers in nearly every category. The best answer is for Askew to begin performing like a top-30 prospect, but UK might be forced to consider expedience soon.
Jumpshooting. For all the Wildcats added in their freshman class, the area that is lacking is the one so essential to last season’s success. Immanuel Quickley was named SEC player of the year mostly because of his next-level deep shooting, but he became a first-round draft pick and there is no obvious replacement.
Mintz has never shot better than 36 percent. And he’s the best UK has.
Why it’s not
Injury. The one experienced player Kentucky returned, versatile forward Keion Brooks, has yet to play because of a calf injury. Brooks would be a starter who would allow the Wildcats to be more versatile on offense without sacrificing size and rebounding ability. Kentucky could use someone who knows what Calipari expects from his player. None of the current rotation players was an active Wildcats player last season.
If Brooks were playing, would it be this bad? It’s impossible to know for certain until he returns at full strength. But his addition could make a significant difference.
Defense. The Wildcats lost Sunday to Georgia Tech not because of their shooting (which was fine) or offensive efficiency (which was terrible) but because a defense that had been exceptional against Kansas totally collapsed. Georgia Tech shot better than 50 percent. The Wildcats forced only six turnovers and blocked one shot.
Wings B.J. Boston and Terrence Clark and forward Isaiah Jackson are all long, quick, fast and explosive. With the length and dynamism the Wildcats possess, they should be generating those numbers in the first five minutes. And they did, more or less, until the Tech game. But the Jackets were ready for this game and used the Wildcats’ inexperience against them, in much the same way Richmond did a week earlier.
Do we think Kentucky will continue to regress on defense? Statistician Ken Pomeroy’s defensive ratings still project UK to do well — at least in part because it has done well. Richmond did not average a point per possession. Kansas did not come close. The Tech game seems more like the anomaly.
Logic. Of course a freshman-laden team is going to struggle more than a capable veteran team early in the season. They do not play the NCAA Tournament in December, though. Calipari always has attempted to build his teams toward March success, and they’ve delivered more NCAA Tournament victories — by far — than any Division I program during his time in charge.
There are those Kentucky fans who have grown weary of the program’s early-season struggles. They wish for a program more like that at Villanova. But here’s the thing: A year ago, those Wildcats lost by 25 to Ohio State and to Baylor by nine points within the season’s first few weeks. They finished 24-7 and managed a three-way tie for the Big East title. They took a different road to a similar conclusion.
There seemed to be less panic among Nova fans, though.