Lachlan McLean and I were discussing what grade to give this team for the regular season on our most recent UK postgame show. I’m an educator for my full-time gig.
Grading is part of my everyday life, so a post like this should come easily to me, but taking the season as a whole makes it difficult. This team has experienced great success as a team and individuals, low points as a team and individuals, injuries, illnesses, and just about anything that can be thrown at a basketball squad.
But through it all, the Kentucky Wildcats were able to win their conference and position themselves as a high seed for the NCAA tournament. As a regular season, I would give it a B+.
There is only one bad loss on the record, but there were some missed opportunities against ranked teams at home (Kansas and UCLA) that would have vaulted the ‘Cats to a 1 seed.
So how did each ‘Cat contribute to this B+ season? I’m glad I have my red Sharpie handy because I’m ready to dole out some grades.
De’Aaron Fox: A-
The point guard for Kentucky had to battle through more off of the court than any other player on the team. He suffered an ankle injury, an illness that kept him out a game, and a knee injury that kept him out a game.
Fox is the engine that drives the offense, and when he is at his best, the ‘Cats are at their best. He’s an elite talent that, while he has had his slip-ups, is better than the point guard across from him nine out of ten times. His defense struggled at times, but that portion of his game has improved dramatically.
His team has proved that they can win without him, but for the Wildcats to make a deep run in March, Fox has to be a major factor. His turnovers have been lower than his assists, and he’s money at the free throw line. His outside shooting seems to have improved with every single game. He’s a threat whenever the ball is in his hands. As long as his play isn’t casual, expect a big postseason from Fox.
Malik Monk: A
The most exciting player on the team and the deadliest offensive player in the country is Malik Monk, and there isn’t a debate. When this young man is hot, there isn’t a better player in the country. We have seen him almost defeat teams by himself- North Carolina, Georgia at home, Florida at home, and Vanderbilt at home come to mind- but Monk struggled to score on the road.
There was a big difference between "Road Monk" and Malik Monk. Road Monk manifested against Texas A&M in College Station, but luckily De’Aaron Fox picked him his scoring slack. At home and on a neutral court, there isn’t a better offensive player in college basketball. Good thing the rest of the games will be played on a neutral setting.
Monk has had his struggles on defense and struggles rebounding the basketball. But he has corrected those deficiencies much like his backcourt mate Fox has corrected his defense. The most improved facet of Monk’s game is his ability to distribute the basketball. When he isn’t hitting on offense, he is willing to give the ball up to other teammates. He doesn’t feel obligated to force shots in the offense. He’s letting the game come to him.
The NCAA tournament is a guard driven affair. Monk is the best shooting guard in the country, and there isn’t a debate as far as I’m concerned. He is a player made for March, and I think we will see some special performances from him.
Bam Adebayo: A-
If not for Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, Bam would receive my vote for most improved player. The talent has always been there, but Bam was prone to foul trouble early in the season, and his rebounding left a lot to be desired for his size and strength.
But Bam has turned into a beast in the last month of the season. Double-doubles are a given almost every night. His hustle has never been in question, but it seemed as if he was out of position for rebounds and he wasn’t as aggressive with the ball as he should have been. Give credit to Kenny Payne for helping Bam flip the switch.
Bam is probably the player that Kentucky can least afford to lose because there is a huge drop-off as far as his position is concerned. He has to be on the floor for the ‘Cats whereas John Calipari has come to trust multiple guards.
Bam is going to be the most effective in March rebounding the basketball and getting to the free throw line. Along with Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam is one of the best free throw shooting big men that Cal has had at UK. He’s also developed a nice mid-range jump shot that he hits on a consistent basis. Good luck, opposing centers.
Isaiah Briscoe: B+
Say what you want about Isaiah, and I’m sure there’s a lot you can say, but without him, Kentucky loses more than five games. Yes, he has been inconsistent at times on offense and careless with the ball at times, but is there a better rebounding guard on the team? No. Is there a better defensive player on the team? One can argue Dominique Hawkins, but that’s it. Is there a better guard on the team against the zone? No.
While Briscoe has had his struggles, he is going to be a key part of Kentucky’s success going forward for all of the reasons I have mentioned. He has been a consistent cog for the team, and it will be tough to go to a Final Four if he is struggling.
Like most of his teammates, Briscoe looks to have turned the corner at the right time. The last three games have been more of what we are used to with him: 7-10 points, 8-10 rebounds, 6-8 assists, 0-3 turnovers. That’s a stat line we can all live with.
Wenyen Gabriel: C+
Gabriel has had a few bright spots- 23 points vs. LSU- but he has been one of the more inconsistent players on the team. When Kentucky was struggling the most, Wenyen and Derek Willis were non-factors. While Willis has improved dramatically, Gabriel has either leveled out or maybe regressed a bit.
When he is at his best, he is rebounding the ball with energy and hitting the occasional three point shot. He has the talent to be as good as anyone, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together. He lost his starting spot to Willis and deservedly so. But mark my words, there will be a game in the tournament when he will deliver for the ‘Cats.
Derek Willis: B
This grade has a chance to be much higher by the end of the tournament, but for right now it’s hard to go much higher than this. There were times this season when we all wondered if Willis had maxed his talent last season. He wasn’t hitting shots, he wasn’t defending, and there wasn’t much of a reason to leave him on the floor. Between Willis and Gabriel, UK was getting next to nothing from the four spot.
Like most of his teammates, Willis has found his stride. Even though his shooting hasn’t been as high percentage as it was last season, teams still have to account for him on offense. He’s also doing other things if he’s not scoring. He’s the second best rebounding big man on the team, his defense is much better, and he’s become a shot blocking machine utilizing his athleticism and length.
Other than Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller, Willis has developed more throughout his career at Kentucky than any other player under John Calipari. He’s gone from an afterthought to a spot-up shooter, to a hustle guy that rebounds his butt off. Willis doing the little things is what earned him his starting spot.
Dominique Hawkins: A-
Where would UK be without senior Dominique Hawkins? The steady hand that rights the ship and doesn’t make mistakes, Hawk has come up big for Kentucky down the stretch.
With De’Aaron Fox missing time for various reasons and Isaiah Briscoe struggling at times, Hawkins has been asked to play increasing minutes, and he’s produced every single time. He’s not going to light it up on offense, but he will take the right shot when it is needed. He is a great distributor. He can run the offense with efficiency. He shares the title of best perimeter defender with Briscoe. He’s Cal’s glue guy, and he trusts him in crunch time.
As Hawkins’ minutes have increased, this Kentucky team has improved during conference play, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. There has never been a time when I questioned his effort or intensity. Hawkins is the unsung hero of this basketball team.
Mycah Mulder: C+
Mychal Mulder is playing the best basketball of his career right now. He missed a large stretch in the middle of conference play due to a prolonged illness, but since returning, he’s been playing much better basketball.
While he hasn’t shot the ball as well as we would all like to see, he’s still a threat on offense behind the arch and teams have to account for him. His defense has been OK, but long stretches with him on the floor genuinely lead to his opponent scoring in bunches.
While Mulder is not as reliable as some of the other guards, his shooting will come in handy.
Isaac Humphries: C
It’s been a disappointing season for Hump. Thus he earns my lowest grade. He cannot stay on the floor long enough due to almost constant foul trouble, and the center position takes a huge step back when he comes in for Bam.
He’s unsure of himself on offense and isn’t fast enough on defense. Even against Texas A&M, a team he usually plays well against, he wasn’t a factor at all. Isaac earned rave reviews during the preseason, but he hasn’t lived up to that praise.
I think I’ve been more than fair with every player. The best news is that it seems as if every player is playing his best basketball of the season during the most important time of the year.
Guys like Willis and Hawkins have become reliable vets while our stars are starting to shine more with every game.
Hopefully, when I do my end of the year grades, every player gets a significant bump.