“I feel like we came in thinking we were that team, but we’re not. We’re not that team.” – Willie Cauley-Stein after the Baylor loss
What team is this Kentucky team? We can break down the numbers and line-up combinations as much as we want, but this young team appears to still be searching for an identity. The good news is that we are only a month into the season. Kentucky has played only 8 games so far, with plenty of chances to sort things out before entering conference play.
Three years ago, Kentucky was perhaps the most explosive team in the country– especially in transition. They were good on the defensive end, and unstoppable on the break with John Wall leading the push. That Kentucky team wasn’t a great shooting team. We all know that came back to bite them in the end. All of the other pieces were in place though. With a few solid holdovers from the Billy Gillispie era coupled with a top flight recruiting class, Kentucky had answers at every position. Their identity was based upon lethal speed and finishing ability in transition, solid defense, and a dominant low post game between Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins
Two years ago, Kentucky struggled to find an identity early in the season. They didn’t stumble quite as much in the non-conference schedule as this year’s bunch. That team certainly struggled on the road throughout SEC regular season play though. When that team found their identity late in the season, they quickly transformed into one of the best teams in college basketball. That team’s identity was based upon brilliant half-court execution on the offensive end, which was spurred by an extremely smart and poised Brandon Knight. Their identity was also built around Knight’s confidence and ability to make big baskets, a near-perfect pick-and-roll combination of Knight/Harrellson, solid outside shooting behind Doron Lamb, Knight and Darius Miller, and DeAndre Liggins being able to lockdown the other team’s best player defensively. Liggins and Harrellson brought a level of toughness to that team that had a trickle down effect to the other players. That final four team was not the most talented Kentucky team by a long-shot, but they were excellent at playing to their strengths.
Last year’s team had a bit of everything, which is probably why they were the first Calipari team to win a national championship. Like the John Wall team, they were able to dominate teams in transition. Their ability to get out in transition was a direct reflection of their relentless defense–led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. One of the biggest parts of last year’s team identity though was their ability to bury teams with big runs. Whenever they needed a run, or a team started to have success against them– that Kentucky team was able to come up with every stop they needed defensively and very quickly string together 8-12 points before the other team had a chance to call a timeout.
What is the common thread between each of Calipari’s teams at Kentucky and their identities? Defense. Calipari simply hasn’t had a bad defensive team in his time at Kentucky. I’m not sure the make-up of this year’s Kentucky basketball team will amount to an excellent defense. Guys like Kyle Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood and Julius Mays struggle at times to stay in front of their man. Ryan Harrow has continually looked lost on defense, giving up big 3-point baskets to his man on multiple occasions in multiple games. Nerlens Noel is a great shot-blocker, but even he has struggled at times to stay on his feet and not bite on the pump fakes. Noel makes up for a lot of those shortcomings with incredible effort though, coming up with steals based solely upon hustle. Willie Cauley-Stein has struggled at times in the big games to stay on the floor, often finding himself into foul trouble. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have looked great on defense at times, though neither has looked the part of DeAndre Liggins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Who will be this team’s lockdown defender? Do they have one? Will they ever have one? Disrupting other team’s offenses over the past 2 years with lockdown defenders essentially eliminating or slowing the other team’s best offensive weapons has been crucial to Calipari’s teams’ success.
If this Kentucky team can’t be excellent on the defensive end (turning teams over and leading to transition basketball), they will probably need to have a point guard who can execute the half-court offense similar to how Brandon Knight once did. The combination of Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow (the line-up Calipari mentioned really liking in the Baylor post-game press conference) might be what Kentucky starts to build their identity around if they are to find one soon. Although the line-up is small, maybe they will start to find success and successful niches with that group on the floor.
Luckily time is still on this team’s side. John Calipari is nowhere near panic mode with this young group. The early season struggles have certainly revealed the weaknesses of this team, but they still have plenty of time to find an identity. The question is what will that identity be? Which players will it be built upon? Will it be based on defense? Offensive execution? Or maybe an identity we haven’t yet seen from a Calipari team? Something new?