Kentucky Basketball: So Close We Can Almost Touch It

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the loss on Friday to Baylor, this Kentucky team is not that far away from being an outstanding team.

So now that we've had our moments of angst, sorted through the wreckage and analyzed the damage, let me just postulate a question: Has any among you, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, given up on this Wildcats team? No? I didn't think so. Neither have I.

Look, we all have reason for concern... well, not all. I know there are some among you who see nothing but sunshine, unicorns and rainbows. Having been accused recently of disrespecting that opinion, I want to assure you that you are welcome to it with my blessings, and no retribution, rational or otherwise. Whatever, as they say, gets you through the night is just fine with me.

For the rest of us not blessed with unassailable optimism, we can take some solace in this John Clay article, the proverbial dark cloud/silver lining give and take. Most of the silver lining is the fact that this is only December 9th, and most of the errors that have created the two early season losses are correctable, assuming all parties are willing.

This also points to the problem of John Calipari's "non traditional" approach to college basketball at Kentucky — young players are forced to grow up very, very fast. We have seen this happen three times with success, and one time with failure. It's important to note that the one failed season carried with it a season-ending injury to the most important player on the team, forcing the team to play without their best player. No matter where you come down on the talent vs. experience debate, that makes a big difference.

One of the encouraging things about this team is that we have, at various times, seen what they are capable of. The biggest problem right now is team defense, and I think we have reached a general conclusion that the defense is a) less intense than it needs to be, b) Kentucky's big guards are having trouble with quicker opponents, and c) pick and roll defense needs to get a lot better.

The good news is that all these problems are correctable with coaching as long as the players are willing, and I think they are. The Harrison twins have struggled with a surly demeanor when things go wrong, and that's more of a competitive thing than anything else, in my opinion. The problem is that it seems to interfere with their success, and that means it needs attention from the staff.

Obviously, pick and roll defense needs attention, and I have no doubt that it will get it — the squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say, and Baylor made that wheel squeak the other night like it only had a nodding relationship with lubricants of any kind.

Offensively, Kentucky has developed more of an identity than last year, but it needs refinement. Calipari, in my opinion, went a bit overboard with the determination to play through Julius Randle, and that has forced teams to pack their zones inside. What Kentucky needs is to consider moving Randle out to the high post instead of Cauley-Stein, and play a bit of a high-low game when teams come at UK with zone. The reason for this is that Randle is a threat to make the free-throw line jumper, and WCS isn't a guy you want shooting that shot.

Also, Randle can make a move toward the basket and immediately kick out to open shooters when the defense collapses, but Calipari must tell his wing players to take that 3-point shot and send his bigger wing players to the glass. Now this has the potential to allow opponents to score easy transition baskets, but it's a tradeoff — zones have no blockout responsibilities and therefore allow a much higher percentage of offensive rebounds. OR's are where Kentucky's offensive bread is buttered, and they worried so much about defensive balance that they didn't send enough players to the boards to exploit Baylor's zone.

Right now, Kentucky doesn't need huge fixes, despite my anger of the other night. The thing is, you would have expected the Wildcats to be more competent at basics than they are by now given past results, but every team is different and progresses at a different rate. This is still a long season, and there are many unpredictable twists and turns likely. Consider the Kansas Jayhawks losing to Colorado the other night on a last-second shot.

With that said, changes need to be made. One thing that was inexplicable in the Baylor loss was Calipari's failure to use his bench. It was as though he suddenly lost confidence in his reserves, and his comment that he was "trying to get out with a win" is troubling in its allusion to playing not to lose. If the players get that kind of vibe from him, it isn't a good thing. This team is talented enough to trust to play to win — let them. If they fail, it costs no more than the inevitable comeback win we saw the other night.

There are lots of lessons to be learned in the Baylor loss. Let them be learned. If they are, we are in really great shape. We're going to find out pretty quickly, too — Boise St. is no pushover, and we've seen what North Carolina can (sometimes) do.

So although I think we have reasons for concern, in retrospect, they are nothing like the reasons for concern we should have had at this point about last season's team. This year's team seems like it is two or three fundamental things away from being the best team in college basketball. Can they get close enough to that point over the next two weeks to get through the rest of the non-conference season without a loss?

We'll see.

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