As has been written several times over the last few weeks, the gift and the curse of the John Calipari era at Kentucky is that regardless of what happens early in the season, he always has his teams ready for March. No matter how hopeless things might seem in November and December, by tournament time, his team is always a threat to make a run.
We now have over a decade’s worth of data to prove it.
Remember, even before Calipari got to Kentucky, his final four teams at Memphis made it to at least the Sweet 16, a staggering string of success that the school has never come close to replicating. And since he’s gotten to Kentucky it’s been much the same. While there have been plenty of years where Calipari has had one of the best teams in the country all season long (2010, 2012, 2015, 2017) there have been plenty others where things looked hopeless early, before they picked up late (2011, 2014, 2018).
Still, even with that as a background, even with the knowledge that Calipari always figures it out, I’ll readily admit one thing: I’ve been blown away by Kentucky’s improvement over the last two games. It was less than 20 days ago that we were wondering what was wrong with the Cats following a loss to Seton Hall, with everyone (including myself) questioning if they’d ever figure it out. Fast-forward, and they’ve got two straight wins, including one over a really good North Carolina team, in a game they largely dominated from start to finish. As anyone reading this knows, the 80-72 final was much closer than the game itself actually was.
And as I sit back and reflect on that win, it’s got me thinking about Kentucky, and the fact that – as we all know – John Calipari is only going to have this team playing better and better as the season goes and peaking in March.
Therefore, it feels fair to ask: Are we just now starting to see what this team is capable of? Because I do believe we are. And if that’s the case, just how high could this team’s ceiling be, come March? It’s a little scary to think about right now to be honest.
Let’s start with what we learned over the last few games, which could be best summed up by saying “Hmm, maybe this team isn’t so bad after all.” In the Bahamas we saw just how good these individual pieces were, and now we’re starting to see how they all fit together.
In terms of the good stuff, there are a few things we know so far. One, Ashton Hagans is the answer at point guard. This is no longer debatable. After a game where he completely dominated against North Carolina – and did so basically on one leg – we now know that Hagans is the engine that will drive this team. While his jump shot is a work in progress (and will be even after he leaves Kentucky) he can still get to the spots on the floor he wants to on offense, which in turn helps create offense for others. And defensively he’s just a nightmare. Good luck to any guard who is trying to run offense against the Wildcats from here on out.
Beyond Hagans, we’ve learned some other things as well. P.J. Washington and Reid Travis are starting to learn how to play together. Travis is of the most intimidating low post presences in all of college basketball, and Washington is versatile enough where he can step outside the paint when he and Travis are on the floor together. When Travis is on the bench, Washington can go into the low post and dominate against most teams Kentucky will play, like he did against Seton Hall. Additionally, Keldon Johnson is evolving into exactly what he was promised to be: An uber-competitive two-way player who busts his butt on both ends of the floor. His offense has picked up exponentially over the last two games, and even if we can’t expect him to keep those numbers up (he’s averaging 23.5 points on 10-14 shooting), he is a player who is capable of going off for 20 on any given night.
So that’s what we know about Kentucky right now. But here is the scary part: They still have so much more growing to do before they come close to the team that they could be by March. Admittedly, most teams grow through the season. But with so many young players, so much raw talent and so many new faces, it does seem like Kentucky’s growth – like it usually is – will be more pronounced than some other schools.
Seriously, think about how much better this team can get.
Let’s start with Tyler Herro. Looking at the raw numbers he’s been fine so far – 12 points per game from a freshman is never anything to scoff at. Yet he is also only hitting 29 percent from three-point land right now. And it’s not like he’s taking highly-contested shots against elite defenders. He’s missing wide open bunnies that eventually will fall for him. Can you imagine how much more lethal this offense will look if, and when, a few of those will fall? If he can just get that three-point shooting percentage to say 35 or 36 percent, you’re talking about an addition six or so points per game.
Beyond Herro, how about Jemarl Baker? We saw flashes against Utah and to John Calipari’s credit, he ran Baker out there quite a bit against North Carolina. What if Baker becomes another threat off the bench that can hit threes? At that point, you’d have a team with about five or six guys (Johnson, Herro, Baker, Washington, Immanuel Quickley) who can hit deep threes. You know how much more that will spread out the defense and make life easier for the Wildcats on offense?
Furthermore, at some point you’ve got to think that the Wildcats will get something more from E.J. Montgomery as well. He’s in a tough spot behind Travis and Washington but we all know he’s capable of more than the five points and four boards per game he is averaging right now. Same with Quickley, who can add scoring punch off the bench as well.
So let’s just take those little tweaks. Take a little bit more consistent shooting from Herro, a bit more from Montgomery, anything from Baker, and add it in with the production Kentucky is already getting, well again, I’d ask, what exactly is the ceiling of this team?
Because as someone who covers college basketball for a living, I can tell you this: If we ever do see that version of Kentucky? There aren’t many teams in the country that will be able to hang with them. And there aren’t many teams, even at the top of the rankings, that Kentucky wouldn’t be able to compete with – and potentially beat – on a neutral court in March.
Seriously, I watch about as much college basketball as anyone, and when I think about a Kentucky squad firing on all cylinders, there aren’t many teams that come to mind who I’d think “Man, they’d give the Wildcats problems.” A full-strength, peaking Kentucky can absolutely hang with the schools atop the polls like Michigan, Tennessee (the team I believe should be No. 1 in the country right now) and Kansas. Same with Virginia and Nevada. Heck, I think they’d be favored against some of those squads on a neutral court.
Others would give them more trouble like Gonzaga (don’t overthink the Zags loss to North Carolina – they were down two key players. The Zags are very much legit), but I even think the Wildcats would be capable of hanging with Duke. Yes, we all saw the debacle in Indianapolis a few weeks back. But as the season wears on it’s looking more like that was the best game Duke played all year, and the blueprint is now out on how you can hang with them. Plus, I would think the Wildcats would come out more focused and fired up in a second meeting with them.
Of course these are all just hypotheticals right now, and we’ll find out just how far this team has come, and how far they have to go, Saturday when the Wildcats return to the court against Louisville.
But based on what we’ve seen the last few weeks, it’s perfectly acceptable for Kentucky fans to dream big.
And wonder just how good this team might be come March.