There really is no other way to put it: Kentucky is not a very good basketball team right now. Following another loss, to another team that, frankly, Kentucky should not have lost to, the Wildcats are now sitting at just 8-2 on the season. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this team hasn’t looked truly good since opening night of the season.
And if we’re being honest, I’m not even sure the team looked good that night, as much as “Tyrese Maxey looked really good.”
Of course, with the loss, the questions have again sprung up about Kentucky (ironically, like they did almost exactly one season ago after the Wildcats lost to Seton Hall). Those questions are predictable but fair: Does this team have enough shooting? Does it have enough inside scoring? Is it the scheme? Is it the recruiting?
Well, all of that might play a factor.
But to me, the biggest problem lies in one simple truth:
Kentucky isn’t good enough as a team offensively, to come out as flat as they did on Wednesday night against Utah. If they don’t come out fully locked in, like they did against Michigan State on opening night, Kentucky can lose to just about anyone left on the schedule. If the Wildcats decide to wait until the 30-minute mark to flip the switch (like they did against Utah), they will again find themselves in holes that they can’t dig themselves out of.
It’s something I said following the game, and something John Calipari essentially confirmed on his Twitter feed Thursday morning, basically admitting that they didn’t fully lock in until there were 10 minutes to go.
Losing stinks and we are still trying to figure this out, but I like the fact that we had a will to win at the end. For the other 30 minutes, they were the aggressor and they were the fighters. We were not.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) December 19, 2019
I really do hate to dumb it down to such a simple concept, but it really is Kentucky’s biggest problem right now.
To fully explain my point, let’s jump outside the Kentucky bubble for a second and talk in the big picture of college hoops. Because as I said on my recap podcast this morning, whenever I’m looking at college basketball teams as a whole, I always ask myself one simple question: Does this team have a guy who can go get you a bucket when you absolutely need it? Those guys come in different shapes and sizes, but as a general rule, in years past, Kentucky has had that guy. Sometimes it’s a lightning quick point guard who can get to the rim like John Wall or De’Aaron Fox, and sometimes it’s a big guy who you can dump the ball down to for an automatic basket like PJ Washington last year. Sometimes it’s a wing like Kevin Knox two seasons ago.
But this year, who is that guy for the Wildcats? Tyrese Maxey has the most potential to get there, but are we sure he’s that guy, night-in and night-out yet? I’m not. EJ Montgomery has played with more urgency since he came back from injury, but isn’t a walking bucket like Washington was a season ago. Ashton Hagans has taken on a bigger leadership and maturity role, but again, offensively he just isn’t that guy. And beyond them, no one else is even close. Sorry Keion Brooks and Kahlil Whitney. It’s true.
Because of it, it also leaves Kentucky in the position they were in on Wednesday. If they give up a few early buckets, fall down six or eight or 10, this team really is just not built to come back from that kind of deficit. I’m not calling them “Virginia 2.0” or anything. But they’re much more equipped to win a game 68-64 than they are to try and win an 84-80 shootout.
It also means that unlike other years, where offense appeared to come a bit more easily, the margin for error with the 2019-2020 Wildcats isn’t as large as it has been before. I’m not saying that they can’t beat the “best” teams in the sport (if “best” even exists this season), but it’s that they can’t do it if they’re not locked in from the opening tip. This team – until they prove me wrong – can’t sustain a bad game or even a bad half against any type of decent team and expect to win. They need to be 100 percent locked in from the jump.
Which ultimately brings me to the most interesting question about these 2019-2020 Kentucky Wildcats: Are they willing to accept what their identity should be, as a defensive-oriented team, one that has to grind out low-scoring wins on the other end of the floor? I know it’s not the “Kentucky brand.” And I know when these guys all committed to the school, they imagined the bright lights and big games and being the next great star and All-American in Lexington.
But right now, none of these guys is that guy. And because of it, this will have to be a different type of Kentucky team. The question now is whether this group of guys is willing to accept that. It will largely define how far they go this season.
Speaking of this season, in the big picture, I guess I am not as worried as many others. I don’t believe the season is over, or that they can’t turn things around.
There are two main reasons why.
The first is pretty simple: Have you seen everyone else in college basketball this season? The SEC is downright terrible (only Auburn and Arkansas could be considered teams that have “overachieved” or even “met their potential” this season) and on the national scale, everyone has flaws. I’m not guaranteeing a win for Kentucky over Ohio State this weekend, or Louisville next week, or anyone else come March. But I also don’t think there’s anyone in college hoops this year that is so good, that Kentucky might as well pack up the tents right now because they have no shot.
Also, you know the other reason I’m not too concerned: We’ve been through this before, including… literally last season. It was just over a year ago that Kentucky played Seton Hall on a neutral floor, close to their opponent’s campus, and ended up losing. Well, I’ll admit that I freaked out after that game. And everything turned out just fine. That same team that we all wrote off in December, was fine by March.
Now again, this year is different, and the margin for error with this group is smaller. It starts on defense, and it starts with this team coming out locked in every single night, for the rest of the season.
Will they be capable, and willing to play that way?
We’ll find out starting Saturday.
But their effort, especially on the defensive end, will define Kentucky’s entire season.