The youngest Kentucky Wildcats any of has ever seen has a record of 4-1. John Calipari has put them through the ringer early, playing seven games in the month of November.
Right now, they are in the middle of a stretch of three games in six days, and they just came off a similar stretch of three games in five days. Out of the five teams they have played, four of them were in the NCAA Tournament last season.
The Kansas Jayhawks are in the top five in the country right now and will more than likely win the Big 12 for the 14th-straight time.
The Vermont Catamounts have a veteran team that will win their league and will make another run in the NCAA tournament; they’re probably the best mid-major team in the country.
So while some in the Big Blue Nation are fretting over the performance of the team thus far, it’s important to understand how difficult this has been. Calipari designed this schedule with the intent of a Baptism by fire for his young squad. He can break them down, show them their mistakes, and make them understand that their bad habits aren’t going to cut it in college basketball.
A couple of guys are getting that message already. Kevin Knox and Quade Green have been the most consistent guys on the team regarding offense combined with effort. Wenyen Gabriel and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have show defense and effort consistency. The rest of the guys are on a game-by-game learning curve.
The good news is that players continue to show flashes of how good they can be and the team works hard to fix issues that Cal pinpoints after games. The not-so-good news is that once you think a problem is fixed, another pops up.
For example: in the latest game against the Troy Trojans, the ‘Cats dominated the boards 53-30, something they’ve yet to do this season. Pats on the back all around, right?
Not exactly. After cruising to a comfortable 16 point lead at the half, Kentucky self-destructed on offense, giving the ball away 16 times in the game. That’s how a team that shot 4-27 from the three gets back into the game.
Why the mental breakdown in the halfcourt offense? It was simple: Kentucky stopped going to the paint, settled for bad perimeter shots and reverted back to AAU habits. And this game isn’t unique. They’ve exhibited similar behavior in every game thus far.
An image of Calipari in a lifeboat scrambling to plug multiple leaks in the bottom of the boat comes to mind. Once one is covered and secure, another spouts water immediately.
This is how it's going to be through December. Luckily the schedule isn’t as clustered as it has been in November. The team will actually have multiple days in between games, and they will have more time to practice once exams are over.
For now, the team is still raw and at times undisciplined. But John Calipari has been here before. Most of the teams that he’s coached in his tenure at Kentucky have struggled early, and then they have a breakout "Aha!" moment. And then they stumble a few times during SEC play which is normal.
As long as they are ready to roll in March, the sins in the non-conference will be forgiven.