While the off the court action was indeed fun for those of us who went to Las Vegas last weekend to watch Kentucky play (thanks to those who came out for the Happy Hour on Friday, by the way!), the on the court results were nothing short of disastrous for the Wildcats.
You don’t need me to tell you, but a lackluster, uninspired late-night loss to Utah on Wednesday was followed by a whistle-fueled, narrow defeat to Ohio State, which dropped Kentucky to 0-2 on its Vegas Vacation. It also left many with questions about this team: What is the actual ceiling for this Kentucky group? Will a go-to scorer ever emerge? Will a three-point shot ever fall? Will they ever win another game!?!?!?!?!?!?!
The answer to the last question is obvious, but the rest is totally fair. Yet despite it, many (myself included) have not lost hope that this team can again emerge as a threat late in the season.
So what has to happen for change?
Let’s take a look, and do it in a festive way, with the Kentucky fan’s, Christmas wish list:
Wish No. 1: Kentucky comes out with the energy of the Michigan State and Ohio State games every night the rest of the season
I wrote about this after the Utah game, so I won’t go too in-depth on this here. But ultimately, this is my biggest takeaway on Kentucky through 40 percent of the season: They aren’t as bad as many think. But they’re not good enough to simply “out-talent” people either.
Meaning, that if they come out with the intensity of the Michigan State game every game the rest of the year, there is no one they can’t beat. If they come out with the intensity of the Evansville, Utah Valley or Utah games however, they can lose to just about anyone left on the schedule.
To me, this is the biggest question the rest of the season. Will this group embrace that they aren’t one of the flashier Kentucky teams in recent memory, but instead a group that needs to get by on toughness and defensive energy, and win games 68-64 instead of 82-79?
They better. Because it will largely define how successful this season will become.
Wish No. 2: That Ashton Hagans continues to play at the level that he’s played at the last few weeks
Because Kentucky has lost its last two games, it has largely overshadowed a positive to come out of the past few weeks. That positive is that Ashton Hagans is quietly turning into a really good college point guard.
Now ultimately maybe he’ll never live up to the hype that preceded him coming to Kentucky, that of the top point guard in the high school class and a future lottery pick. But even if he doesn’t there, we need to acknowledge how far he’s come. And to be honest, I’m not sure there are many guards that have played better than Hagans has over the last few weeks. In Kentucky’s last five games, he is averaging 14.2 points, 9.4 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
To which I ask, if I had told you in the preseason that Hagans would give you 14 points, nine assists and three steals per night, how would you have reacted? Probably by doing cartwheels in your living room.
To his credit, Hagans is quietly doing his part, now it’s time for…
Wish No. 3: Tyrese Maxey to get his “Michigan State Swag” Back
Again, Hagans is doing what is expected of him in running this offense. Now, without being too critical of one player, it’s on his backcourt mate Tyrese Maxey to do his part, as the off-the-ball scorer this team needs.
Again, I’m not saying that Maxey is the only person to blame for Kentucky’s struggles. Not at all. But for this team to reach its potential, Maxey needs to reach his. And it starts by getting back the same swagger that he had against Michigan State.
Now look, that’s not to say he needs to score 26 points a night, because not many dudes in college basketball can do that. But still, it’s striking just how far Maxey has fallen from his opening night output. Against the Spartans, Maxey had those 26 points as mentioned. Since then, he’s topped 20 points in just one other game. In that Michigan State game, he went 3 for 7 from three. He’s only hit more than one three-pointer in one other game this season.
Again, to be abundantly clear, I’m not saying that Maxey needs to evolve into an All-American or the best player in the SEC. That likely isn’t happening. But he probably has the highest upside of anyone on this team. And he needs to start playing like it.
Wish No. 4: That the officiating crew from Saturday is disbanded and never heard from again
Don’t think this one needs any further explanation, but man, was that a tough watch on Saturday. I’ll be hearing referees’ whistles in my ears until well after New Year’s thanks to those guys.
Wish No. 5: Can someone make a three-pointer, please?
Another one that needs no further explanation, yet at the same time it’s still kind of incredible to see. How can a team with this many guys who are capable of hitting threes, miss so many?
Now look, I know many want to blame John Calipari for some of this, since he promised all off-season that the shooting would be better. At the same time, how much can you really blame a coach when he’s getting his guys open looks and they just can’t hit them?
Therefore, I don’t think it’s on Calipari as much as the simple fact that guys aren’t making shots.
After all, it’s not all Calipari’s fault that Immanuel Quickley’s three-point shooting percentage has gone down this season, and Hagans’ is only up half a percent. It’s not Calipari’s fault that Maxey – who I was told at the Nike Hoops Summit had been the team’s best shooter all week – has been ice cold of late. It’s not all Calipari’s fault that Johnny Juzang – a player who I watched a ton in high school, and can promise you is a dead-eye shooter – can’t get into a rhythm.
Ultimately if you want to blame some of it on Calipari, and his scheme and X’s and O’s, so be it. But some of it is just on guys to make open shots.
The good news is you’d think it would get better. Mainly because it can’t get much worse.
Wish No. 6: That Nate Sestina can stay healthy the rest of the season
Of every single positive that came out of Kentucky’s Vegas Vacation, the best might be the re-emergence of Nate Sestina. He is back and ready to provide toughness inside and three-point shooting from deep.
And not a moment too soon.
But while many will focus simply on the fact that he’s the only guy who can hit three-pointers right now, I think his return is important for another reason: He brings the maturity and confidence that this team is clearly lacking right now.
That’s because after sitting courtside on Saturday, the one thing that stood out to me wasn’t Sestina’s three-point shooting, but the leadership he brought to the floor. He was the guy barking out the other team’s plays and communicating the loudest on defense. I also noticed that he was the one who broke down the entire team in a video that Kentucky posted following the game.
“You’re at Kentucky.” – @UKCoachCalipari
Now let’s learn and get better as a team. pic.twitter.com/44Ep6qQz3r
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) December 22, 2019
Kentucky needs Sestina’s shooting. But they need his leadership even more.
Wish No. 7: That the SEC stays as bad as it’s been all season
You know what’s crazy about Kentucky’s slow start? Despite sitting at just 8-3, you could argue that they’re not even close to one of the most disappointing teams in the SEC this year. And if anything, that might be this team’s saving grace: This conference really, really stinks in 2019.
Florida, which was purported by some (though not me) as a preseason national title contender is 7-4, with losses at UConn and to Utah State. Neither team is particularly bad, but if the Gators were as good as expected, those are games they should win. LSU is also 7-4, and coming off a week where they lost to East Tennessee State. Right now the Tigers’ best win is against… Rhode Island. Heck, at least LSU beat Rhode Island, a team which Alabama lost to, on their way to a 6-5 start to the year. Meanwhile, Mississippi State has already lost to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State, Georgia’s best win is over SMU, and Tennessee – which actually has a few decent victories out of conference – just lost their best player, Lamonte Turner, for the season.
At this point, the only teams who you could say have played well early in the SEC are Auburn and Arkansas.
It also leads to this: There are a lot of wins to be had in this league, this season. Now it’s up to teams like Kentucky to go take them.
Wish No. 8: That the rest of college basketball stays as bad as its been
And finally, it’s the same thing outside the SEC: College basketball is really bad this year. Sadly, about as bad as I can remember it. The combination of way too many guys leaving early for the draft, with a so-so freshman class, has given us a sport with few great players, and no great teams.
But while that’s bad news for someone like me who will be watching a lot of bad basketball over the next few months, it’s good for a team like Kentucky. Because honestly, looking around college basketball, who absolutely terrifies you this year? Who is the team that you say “Man, we’ve got no shot against them?”
The answer should be “nobody.”
As a matter of fact, that was one of my biggest takeaways from Saturday. While no fan wants to hear it right now, Kentucky played an Ohio State squad which is in the Top 5 nationally, and has beaten both Villanova and North Carolina by 25 points each… and Kentucky was one or two foul calls from potentially winning that game.
The Wildcats weren’t outclassed in that game. They weren’t overwhelmed by talent. The Buckeyes were a little bit better, got a few more calls, and ended up with a close win.
Still, the gap between Kentucky and the “best” teams in college basketball isn’t that wide.
And that might be the ultimate gift this season: With no great teams in college basketball, there’s opportunity to make up ground.
Now, will the Wildcats actually do it? That’s up to them.