Through four games, the Wildcats are 3-1 on the year, though each game has left more questions than answers about what this team really is.
Following Kentucky’s slow start, I’ve read several media analysts and countless fans compare the 2017-18 Wildcats to Calipari’s lone NIT team at Kentucky in 2012-13. Lack of consistency from the point guard spot, shooting concerns, and up-and-down frontcourt play has led to these wild claims.
John Calipari has had a top-three freshman PG on his roster in nine of the past 11 seasons. The only exceptions were the 2013 NIT season … and this season. Is that going to be an issue for Kentucky?
— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) November 16, 2017
Kentucky is Nit bound
— Ghengis Donn (@donngottie) November 18, 2017
Kentucky looks like an NIT team at best 🤮
— Brandon Myers (@hackerhog) November 18, 2017
Coach Cal needs to figure out this point guard situation. Last time Kentucky looked this bad at point guard was in 2012-2013 with Ryan harrow and an NIT first round exit🤔
— michael hinton (@michaelhinton09) November 15, 2017
The Wildcats haven’t crushed anybody yet, and a lot of that has to do with the team not finding their identity on offense.
Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox have taken over as the team’s primary scorers, but Coach Cal has no idea how to handle late-game situations. He’s still dealing with teaching basic fundamentals, and crunch-time basketball is not on the top of his priority list.
When the game is on the line, who has the ball in their hands? This was the 2012-13 team’s biggest issue, as Archie Goodwin wasn’t a dominant scorer, yet he was the only one with the will to take over a game.
Alex Poythress was far too inconsistent, Nerlens Noel wasn’t a primary offensive target, and Ryan Harrow just wasn’t the right fit at point guard. Kyle Wiltjer was a solid shooter, but couldn’t defend to save his life, making him a liability on the floor.
Willie Cauley-Stein was a pleasant surprise, but like Noel, you aren’t going to run an offense through him. Julius Mays? Jarrod Polson? None of those guys quite had that “it” factor on offense, and it hurt the team.
This year’s Kentucky team, however, has a surplus of talent just looking to find their groove. Quade Green was quiet to start the year, but had a breakout offensive performance against ETSU. Knox hit big shots under the bright lights at the Champions Classic. Diallo looked like a true superstar in the season opener against Utah Valley. PJ Washington was a force in the middle and bullied defenders against Vermont. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a stud on defense in just about every outing. Etc.
Great individual efforts on various occasions, but not one where everyone was able to put it all together.
Even still, Nick Richards and Wenyen Gabriel, two five-star talents out of high school, have yet to have breakout games for the Wildcats this season. Sacha Killeya-Jones is just now finding his groove, and Tai Wynyard has made an impact in minimal minutes against big opponents.
The pieces are all there. The next step for this Wildcat team is about putting it all together and letting that potential come to fruition.
Beyond current on-court talent, Jarred Vanderbilt has yet to play a minute for the Wildcats due to injury, and he was a top-ten recruit coming out of high school. Recruiting analysts look at him as a young Lamar Odom, a unique combination of size, athleticism, and scoring ability. He’ll be joining the lineup in the next month or so, providing a massive addition for the Wildcats on both ends of the court.
Jemarl Baker is easily the team’s best three-point shooter, and will become a spark off the bench when he returns to the court. Kentucky needs shooting, and their best one still hasn’t seen the floor yet. It’ll come.
The Wildcats have 10 consistent contributors in the current rotation with the ability to make plays at any given time, along with two more still waiting for their time to shine out with injury. The NIT team had seven main rotation guys, with Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood used at various points, as well. Following the Nerlens Noel injury, we’re talking about a THIN rotation.
When the 2012-13 team got down after Noel’s season ended, they didn’t have the offensive firepower to make easy comebacks or the defensive presence to make crucial stops. This team has proven to make massive runs to erase deficits when the pressure is on, and we still haven’t seen just how talented these guys actually are.
This team is a work in progress, and they’re going to be frustrating for a while, but slow down on the NIT talk. They’ll be just fine.