NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster recently wrote a story addressing why Kentucky looks so much worse than they did at the start of the season. After beating North Carolina, barely losing to UCLA and Louisville, and destroying their first several SEC opponents. Everyone thought the Wildcats were national title contenders. But after losses to Tennessee, Kansas, Florida, and just a seven-point win over LSU, the Wildcats don’t look the same.
The ‘Cats, as Dauster put it, “have looked like a mustang on the highway being driven with the emergency brake on.”
He’s not wrong, but what’s causing that? First, Dauster said this team is just bad defensively right now.
They’ve allowed an average of 86.2 points the last five games and, in the last four games, they’ve gifted their opponents an average of 54 points in the second half. They were beat up in the post by Tennessee. They were beaten in transition by Florida. Yante Maten of Georgia lit them up. LSU’s Antonio Blakeney scored 31 points, easily the best game he’s played this season.
“They couldn’t guard us for s***,” an anonymous SEC coach said of Kentucky, according to Dauster.
But it’s not just the bad defense. Dauster reminds us that these kids are just that: kids.
One thing that got lost in Kentucky’s frenetic start to the season is that this lineup is as young as any that John Calipari’s ever had. His starting lineup includes four freshmen and a sophomore, and no one in that group is the kind of game-changing defensive presence that we’ve seen amongst Kentucky’s one-and-done players. There is no Karl-Anthony Towns. There is no Anthony Davis. There is no Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel.
Again, Dauster’s right. There’s no one in the starting five (aside from maybe Briscoe) that is ready to go step out on an NBA floor and defend the best basketball players in the world. Several of these guys are ready for the offensive side of the NBA, but on the defensive side, they play at the level of their age, and not above it.
Dauster’s next point is perhaps the most overlooked in all of Kentucky’s struggles. If you get back on defense, the Wildcats are extremely easy to stop, because they’re predictable in the half court.
It’s not a secret what they’re trying to do, as their offense is, essentially, one of three things: Fox trying to turn the corner going left, Monk getting run off of screens and hunting jumpshots, or Adebayo getting the ball thrown into him in the post.
This team can run anyone ragged if the opposition lets them. They’ll gladly score 80 fast-break points and beat a bad defensive team by 40 points. But any time they have to run the half-court, they aren’t nearly as high-scoring. That’s another issue of age; most of these kids are used to AAU ball where they’re basically playing one-on-one. The fact that they can even run the half-court already is because of Calipari’s coaching ability. But at some point they have to be able to run a diverse set of plays. It can’t be the same few motions over and over.
And lastly, Dauster kind of blames us, the fans. We expect a ton of these Wildcats, and the meltdown that we’re seeing is the danger of those expectations.
Let’s look at this in a vacuum. As of today, the Wildcats are 19-5 on the season. They’re sitting tied for first place in the SEC with a good shot at getting a top three seed in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday. They have game-changing talent all over their roster and a back court that will be outclassed by exactly zero teams.
All things considered, that’s not a bad year to have for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.
But this is Kentucky, where sitting atop a power conference has people questioning whether or not the basketball team is actually good.
There’s still time for Kentucky to adjust. Calipari teams have made great tournament runs before. Until then, it’s best to take the good with the bad and chalk this up to growing pains as these young players develop.