The 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats basketball squad is a great collection of extraordinarily talented, high-potential players. They are not, however, a good team as Selection Sunday is now just 30 days away.
It has taken a long time for me to accept this fact, and it’s not one that I enjoy realizing. However, over the past week, the reality has set in and, to be honest, it is allowing me to stress about it a whole lot less.
We are now four months into the season, and there is only a month left before the conference tournament tips off in St. Louis. Between now and then, Kentucky could go just as easily go 2-5 as they could 5-2. That’s the simple fact facing a team that is inexperienced, unenthusiastic, and devoid of any consistency outside of being consistently inconsistent.
And you know what? That’s okay. It really is.
It’s okay for this team to not be the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins team. It’s okay that this group will not go 38-1 like the Karl-Anthony Towns, “platoon” squad. Obviously, it’s not going to be the Anthony Davis national championship unit, and that’s cool as well. They are what they are: A group of freshmen and sophomores who are struggling to find their way in the midst of a total free-fall.
That’s what it is right now—it’s a free-fall. Kentucky has lost four of their last seven games. They trailed by fourteen or more points in three straight games. The players look to be completely lost in the half-court, and they cannot seem to consistently find the effort or wherewithal to play defense, at the level we know they are capable, for a full forty minutes.
It is a team that has one proven player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a whole cast of unknowns. Kevin Knox, Quade Green, Nick Richards, PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel—all players who, on a given night, could give you twenty points, or could give you four points and five turnovers while shooting twenty percent from the field.
If they could find some consistency, this team could be amazing. However, the body of work has shown that the games where they do step up are few and far between, and you don’t know which one of them, if any, it will be.
Hamidou Diallo does not seem to have the desire to be the “defensive stopper” that we heard all last year that he was in practice, and with his offense sputtering, he’s spent a lot of time on the bench over the last three games, playing fewer minutes each time. He will still almost certainly go pro, though it may be like Isaiah Briscoe last year in that he’s just ready to be a pro, even if it’s not in America.
It is highly frustrating, not just for the fans, but for John Calipari as well. You can see it in how he talks to the media after games, in how he has all but said he doesn’t know how else to coach his team, and so on.
Sure, he talks about how the team is “fine, they just need to hit a few more threes and they will be in great shape.”
Um....sorry Cal, not buying it. Nobody is. This team isn’t fine. They’re pretty far from it, in fact. It also doesn’t help that they can’t run simple offensive sets, appear to be caught up with fear and hesitation, and are simply not embracing the coaching that he is giving them.
The team has no consistent inside presence, and they have no reliable outside shooting. The numbers bear that out, and it has allowed teams to simply pack the lane and force Kentucky to beat them in the half-court.
As we saw against Tennessee, where the team did not score a basket inside the arc for more than ten minutes to start the game, that is something these Wildcats simply cannot do with any sort of reliability.
On Saturday, as the players were getting out-worked and out-played by a mediocre at best Missouri squad, fellow ASOB writer and my ESPN 680 postgame show co-host James Streble and myself were discussing this team, and our view on them. I was very frustrated with what I was seeing, and admitted that I no longer held any hope for this team.
I had been feeling for a few weeks that this wasn’t a good team, and it finally boiled over as I watched them simply not care enough to fight. James was more upbeat, saying that he still felt this team would grow and get where they need to be.
Since the Louisville game, they have not beaten anybody in a convincing fashion, and they’ve been very fortunate to have won a few of the games they have. They have won some games via terrific comebacks, and others by finding some rare hot shooting. However, it has typically been the play of SGA carrying the team—and that is very fun to watch when he gets going.
James talked me down off the ledge, so to speak, but after what I saw on Tuesday night, my mind is made up. I have accepted the situation for what it is and realized that this team may never be what we thought they would be before the season began. They will likely continue to improve in certain areas one game, and then regress the next time out, while improving somewhere else in exchange.
So, I will watch. And I will watch with the acceptance that this will not be a dominant, fun-to-watch team. I did so during the Tennessee game, and I was surprisingly calm and relaxed. I was able to crack jokes, observe things I might have otherwise missed, and simply watch without any expectations.
And you know what? The loss bothered me much less than it typically would.
So I would tell everyone to relax, and accept the fact that this collection of fast food All-Americans is talented and athletic, but simply is not a good team.
And that’s okay. It really is. I will continue to support them and hope that they can figure things out in the next four weeks.
Besides, when you have no expectations, anything that goes right is a positive surprise.