We’re going to take a deep dive into Kentucky and what happened against Evansville in this space today, and we’re going to have a larger conversation about what, exactly, is going on in Lexington right now and how the No. 1 ranked team in the country can go out and lose a home game to a team that was picked eighth in the Missouri Valley.
We’re going to get into that.
Every little bit of it.
But at the heart of the issue, the biggest problem that Kentucky is currently facing as we sit here today, on November 13th, in the year of our lord 2019, is that their players just aren’t good enough.
I know that sounds simplistic, and I know that we are only now just entering the second week of a five-month long season, and I know that Coach Cal’s teams tend to improve throughout the year.
There’s plenty of room for Kentucky to improve, and very specific areas that could end up solving some of these problems.
But the simple truth is that, as of today, Kentucky just is no where near good enough.
It starts with the backcourt. Typically, John Calipari has had an elite, dynamic lead guard to build things around, but he just does not have that guy this year. Ashton Hagans has not yet taken that leap on the offensive end of the floor. As good as Tyrese Maxey has been in flashes, he’s still a 6-foot-3 combo-guard that’s shooting 30.3 percent from three with four assists and seven turnovers on the season. It looks like head coach John Calipari is trying to mold Immanuel Quickley to play the role that Tyler Herro, Kevin Knox, Malik Monk and Jamal Murray have played for him in the past, but he’s not the shooter – or, to be frank, near as talented – as those four.
But Kentucky doesn’t have a dynamic scorer on the wing, either. Kahlil Whitney has made a few threes, but beyond that, he hasn’t done all that much offensively. Keion Brooks shows some flashes, but he’s as raw as a frozen hamburger patty. Johnny Juzang just isn’t ready for this level.
In the past, when this has been the case, Kentucky has had a behemoth on the block to throw the ball into. Nick Richards is not that. Not even close. E.J. Montgomery is fine, but he’s been banged up and ineffective thus far as a collegian. Nate Sestina is useful in matchups where he won’t have to guard on the perimeter, but on Tuesday night he had to guard on the perimeter. He got lit up defensively and could not overpower a smaller defender on the other end of the floor. He was a net negative.
Those frontcourt issues are compounded by the fact that Kentucky has typically relied quite heavily on second chance points. In John Calipari’s tenure with the Wildcats, he’s never had a team grab fewer than 32.9 percent of their own misses and only three times has had a team finish outside the top 20 in offensive rebounding percentage. This year’s group currently ranks 212th, getting just 26 percent of their own misses. Small sample sizes and all that, but when you see the only 7-footer Kentucky has on the roster and their starting center do things like this against a team from the bottom of the Missouri Valley, you get worried.
Put another way, I think that fundamentally, Kentucky’s roster is flawed based on the way that Coach Cal wants to play.
But it was so much more than that on Tuesday night.
The number of lazy and sloppy mistakes that the Wildcats made was downright baffling.
I mean, just watch this:
These are totally unforced, self-inflicted errors, but the turnovers themselves aren’t the only issue.
Kentucky took a lot of bad shots by shooters that shouldn’t be taking them if they were good shots. Do you think that these are the shots that John Calipari wants to see his team take? What are the chances that pull-up 17-footers from Brooks with 22 seconds on the shot clock was Cal’s game-plan?:
I’ve seen some criticism of Kentucky’s defense from Tuesday night, and I don’t understand it. I thought they were good on that end of the floor. Really good, even. Yes, Sam Cunliffe caught fire for a five-minute stretch in the first half. He’s a former top 50 recruit that has played at Arizona State and Kansas. He’s good enough to do that, especially when allow him space:
Sestina was exposed on Tuesday, but this was also a tough matchup for him. Evansville played four guards and forced Sestina to guard out on the perimeter. He got blown by on more than a few times, and it certainly didn’t help that he was unable to take advantage of his size on the other end of the floor. He’s not alone in sharing this blame, however (hi, Nick Ricahrds), and Sestina also showed up on some of Kentucky’s most important stops in the second half, when the Wildcats forced a number of shot clock violations to put themselves in a position to win:
If E.J. Montgomery was healthy, he could have helped mitigate some of this problem. Later in the season, as the likes of Whitney and Brooks theoretically improve and earn more of Cal’s trust, they can play the four in smaller lineups as well. Hell, Kentucky more or less held Cassius Winston in check when they beat Michigan State. If you’re worried about what Kentucky is defensively right now, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.
Kentucky is fine – more than fine, they’re really good – on that end of the floor right now, and they’re only going to get better.
Where they need to find answers is on the offensive end.
There is a saving grace here.
Every team in the country has issues right now. Kansas is trying to figure out what they hell they are going to do at the four. Louisville has point guard concerns. Duke still can’t really shoot. Michigan State is younger than anyone realized. Florida just got waxed at home by a team that lost to Pitt, who lost at home to Nicholls State.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t put this game into context. This was Kentucky’s third game of the season. The first was the Champions Classic. The second was their home opener on a Friday night. There are reasons to be jacked up for both of those games. On Tuesday, it was frigid and snowing in Kentucky. Rupp Arena was as raucous as a retirement home on board game night.
I get why Kentucky was sleepwalking to start.
Now the question that Cal has to answer is whether or not he can get this team to the point where they’re good enough to win on those nights.