Not too long ago Kentucky was on top of the college basketball kingdom, riding the unibrow. Anthony Davis and company had just won the program’s first national championship since 1998 and there was a feeling of invincibility around Kentucky basketball. Then, John Calipari saw the vast bulk of his talent bolt for the NBA draft.
No problem, though.
This type of system has become routine for Calipari; sign a top draft class, somehow mold all of the personalities into a unit, ride their talent deep into the tournament and then reload for next year. His system has flourished since his arrival in Kentucky, where he has combined program prestige with his charm in order to lure high-level talent to Lexington.
His teams have made the NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons with the program thus far, and this year entered ranked 3rd in the preseason. Again, the team was littered with some of the nations most skilled freshmen and had turned in a number one class ranking from nearly every credible recruiting source. Not surprisingly, it looks like this group of frosh will also reach the postseason—in the NIT.
As the season progresses it is becoming more and more apparent that this team is not NCAA material. There’s no John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins combo, no Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Terrence Jones to take of the game with a quick burst to the lane, no shooter like Doron Lamb. The closest thing to Anthony Davis is Nerlens Noel, but only because he possesses a similar defensive skillset. On offense Davis trumps Noel easily. This team simply isn’t as talented as past Kentucky squads.
That’s not to say talent is nonexistent, but it’s a tantalizing kind of talent, flashing glimpses of what could be for brief periods, then turning around to make the typical freshmen mistakes. It’s the most frustrating kind of talent, talent based on potential rather than action, the kind that builds a sub-par team in college, but will send five players to the NBA based on what they could become. That’s exactly where the Wildcats are headed.
It was a valid argument that the Wildcats were still learning, still adjusting to the college game. They seemed to be getting better game by game, and it appeared to be a matter of time before they maxed out on their full potential. However, their most recent loss to Texas A&M on their home floor threw that notion out the window.
Looking at the stat sheet, it was a pretty spectacular day for Nerlens Noel. He scored 15 points on 4-6 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished six assists, blocked seven shots and had four steals. In one word, he was phenomenal. Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, and Ryan Harrow all combined to add 43 more points for the Wildcats, each scoring in double figures. Goodwin was the leading scorer, with 17. All spectacular individual performances, yet, Kentucky still lost by double digits.
Lack of communication was pivotal in the loss. The Wildcats were simply unable to operate as a cohesive group. As a team, they were dominated by one player—Elston Turner—whom they allowed to drop 40 points on an array of shots (14-19). The Aggies as a team shot 53%. Turner, Fabyon Harris and J’Mychal Reese combined for 9-15 from three. Kentucky was outrebounded, out-assisted, out-hustled and simply outplayed. The defense was, put bluntly, atrocious.
Their downfall to the Aggies is only the latest example, however. There were signs of dysfunction much earlier in the season, stemming back to their season opener.
They struggled to defeat a Maryland team, who, to this point, has yet to beat anyone of note. Then, it was written off as season opener jitters, but now, it is clear it may have been the foreshadowing of the season that was to ensue.
Since that win, each player has seen significant improvement independently. Noel has turned into a shot blocking beast, Goodwin have become rather lethal scorers at times, yet team development as a whole has remained stagnant.
Maybe it’s due to a chemistry issue, or perhaps it’s the game to game inconsistency of some of the freshmen, or just a lackadaisical effort overall, but whatever it is, it’s clear this team received too much preseason hype, and hasn’t lived up to the bill yet.
Time is running out. We all know how much stock the selection committee puts into quality wins and Kentucky has none. Midway through the college season, the Wildcats a couple of bad losses at home as well. Anyone else smell an NIT team?
An NCAA tournament appearance isn’t impossible, just improbable and the fact that the SEC is down this year certainly doesn’t help. Normally there would still be plenty of time for Kentucky to redeem themselves with marquee win in conference play, but this year there’s Florida, Missouri and maybe Mississippi. After that, quality wins will be few and far between. Not to mention, the Wildcats would likely need to avoid any more bad losses to get in the dance to which, considering the team’s current track record doesn’t seem likely.
This team just hasn’t shown enough to validate its entrance into college basketball’s grandest of tournaments. Kentucky lacks the consistency, the quality wins, and the team play of a true tourney team.
So Wildcats fans might want to start scoping out NIT tickets, because barring a complete turnaround that’s where their team is headed.
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