The expectation of Big Blue Nation is that Kentucky goes 40-0 and wins the national championship by 90 points. (Hashtag: ‘Cats by 90.)
That’s similar to head coach John Calipari’s own personal goal of coaching the first unbeaten national champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers (who probably would’ve had difficulties with Indiana State, too).
Unfortunately for Calipari and his youngest team of ‘Cats he’s ever had, 40-0 will have to wait another year after Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Chicago.
But, one loss to one of the nation’s best teams doesn’t mean that everything is lost for the ‘Cats this season, who won’t play outside of Rupp Arena again until Dec. 9 when they travel to Madison Square Garden to face Monmouth in non-conference action.
Despite losing a third straight to the Jayhawks since the 2015-16 season, Kentucky’s fresh crop of high-caliber prospects showed some fight and a lot of promise in defeat. That’s encouraging for a team that’s trying to reach the Final Four for the fifth time since Calipari took over before the 2009-10 season.
Here’s four things we learned about Kentucky in Chicago, starting with who might be the front-runner for the starting center position in Calipari’s post-Champions Classic rotation.
1. Sacha Killeya-Jones has grown so much since last season already
Before the season, I wrote a piece on SKJ having the potential to be a difference-maker up front for the ‘Cats this season.
If it wasn’t for his play against Kansas on Tuesday, Kentucky very well might have given up 18 more offensive rebounds to the Jayhawks.
In a career-high 23 minutes against Kansas, SKJ scored eight points and pulled down nine rebounds (four on the offensive end) and looked like the hardest-working player for Kentucky for much of the night.
Here’s what Calipari had to say about SKJ’s performance and his growth from last season.
Calipari on SKJ tonight: pic.twitter.com/JTgbHJkeoN— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) November 15, 2017
I’ve likened SKJ’s game to Skal Labissiere multiple times and I saw a lot of Labissiere offensively from him on Tuesday. Labissiere had plenty of struggles during his one season at Kentucky, but he showed flashes that got many fans excited about what he could be. SKJ did just that against Kansas.
How pretty is that midrange jumper by Sacha Killeya-Jones. pic.twitter.com/YWGQMy99q5— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 15, 2017
Before the season, SKJ said he was a completely different player than the one that showed up on campus before last season. He may have been right.
2. Kevin Knox is going to be a big-time shot maker this season
De’Aaron Fox was “the guy” during Kentucky’s run to the Elite Eight last season, but it was Malik Monk’s ability to light the world on fire throughout a lot of the year (see here ... and here) that made the ‘Cats so much more dangerous.
Kevin Knox looked like a lighter version of Monk from last season’s Champions Classic against Michigan State with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting (3-of-6 from deep) and seven rebounds.
Kevin Knox splashes another 3. pic.twitter.com/erBJwDL6cH— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 15, 2017
That’s perfect defense from LaGerald Vick and Knox just sprayed a left wing triple in his face in the midst of Kentucky’s best offensive spurt on Tuesday. That’s a very Monk-esque thing to do. With his shooting ability, Knox is going to silence a lot of crowds and bring BBN to its feet quite often this season.
The most memorable play was Knox’s missed floater that would’ve tied the game late. It wasn’t an easy shot, but like Calipari said after the loss: “He probably wasn’t ready for that.”
With time, he very well may be.
Hamidou Diallo is the walking highlight reel for Kentucky, but Kevin Knox is such an important piece in this team reaching their full potential this season.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be a fan-favorite quickly
With his impressive defense against potential All-America guard Devonte’ Graham on Tuesday, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won over a lot of people with his performance that appeared to be Dominique Hawkins’ younger cousin.
Behold this defense by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. pic.twitter.com/yabAAyqKAV— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 15, 2017
The problem for SGA: he also had six of Kentucky’s 18 turnovers.
Freshmen are going to look like freshmen. It’s just how things go on big stages sometimes. But, if it wasn’t for SGA’s play in the first half, Kentucky gets blown out in the first 20 minutes and may check out for the rest of the night.
With 13:24 left (and the ‘Cats down by seven points) until Kentucky re-tied the game at 28 with 6:17 left, SGA had four points and a steal that led to a Quade Green layup to go along with his tight on-ball defense against Graham.
Graham missed 11 of his 14 shot attempts and turned the ball over five times against the ‘Cats thanks in large part to SGA’s defensive performance.
“We had to put him on Graham and I thought he did a pretty good job on Graham ... and that kid’s one of the best scorers in the country,” Calipari said.
4. Kentucky has a 1,000-mile journey ahead, but there’s light at the end
In the 63 years (dog years, by the way) that John Calipari has been the head coach of Kentucky, this is the hardest he’s ever been on a team.
Those are his own words.
“We don’t have a leader yet, so I have to lead,” Calipari said. “I don’t want to lead. I’m too old to lead. I’m too old to stand the whole game. But, they need me in that role right now because no one has taken this yet.”
You’ve probably heard this before, but this is the youngest team Calipari has ever coached. It is and that makes the progress harder to make because this roster is so young.
But, the potential is there for them to be a really, really good team. Kansas shot 35.3 percent on 68 attempts on Tuesday. They averaged just 0.903 points per possession. Kentucky had 10 blocks and seven steals.
This may be Kentucky’s youngest team ever, but it also may be Calipari’s crown jewel of defensive personnel. They’re not the hockey lines of 2014-15, but they can be that good defensively. The ‘Cats are insanely big, long, quick and physical.
If the effort’s there and the ‘Cats cut down on the freshman-like errors on both ends, this team has that potential to beat anybody.