Kentucky’s recent trip to Las Vegas was supposed to be a nice little tune up prior to the much anticipated matchup with Louisville and the start of conference play in January.
Little did we know that an 0-2 record in Sin City would expose the need for a complete overhaul of a disoriented half-court offense that features one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams as the Cats have plummeted to No. 19 in the most recent AP Poll.
With a restless fan base in full panic mode, let’s take a look at some of the highs and lows of the 2019 non-conference schedule and give the Wildcats a grade at the semester break. Of course, the big final exam comes on Saturday when No 3-ranked Louisville looks to get its first win at Rupp Arena since 2008.
RECORD SO FAR: 8-3 Overall
Kentucky now has losses to both Evansville and a brand new Utah team.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 19, 2019
Nope. Just College Basketball.
Pac-12 stock continues to go up in 19-20.
BEST WINS: Michigan State
Kentucky opened the season with a thrilling victory over top-ranked Michigan State at Madison Square Garden and quickly became the No. 1 team in the nation. The win was also the coming out party for freshman Tyrese Maxey who almost single-handedly torched the Spartans with 26 points, including some deep threes that had Dick Vitale losing his mind on national television. Nate Sestina also hit some big shots in the opener as expectations hit a fever pitch with some projecting a tight strangle-hold on the No. 1 ranking throughout November and December.
UNEXPECTED LOSSES: Evansville, Utah
In the blink of an eye, Kentucky went from feast to famine as unranked Evansville played the role of spoiler in what’s now considered one of the all-time epic fails in UK basketball history with a 67-64 shocker at Rupp Arena.
The game was billed as a nice little homecoming for Evansville Coach Walter McCarty, a UK All-American that was part of the 1996 NCAA title team. The Purple Aces entered the game as a 25-point underdog, but played with a fearless abandon as the Cats withered under pressure over the final five minutes of the game and never had a chance to win.
The loss to Utah was another stunner as the Cats trailed by as many as 17 points and finished 2-for-17 from three-point range. Utah followed up by getting blown out by No. 20-ranked San Diego State 80-52.
BEST PLAYERS: Ashton Hagans, Nate Sestina
The good news is that sophomore Ashton Hagans has quickly emerged as Kentucky’s best player and is now getting national attention as arguably the best point guard in college basketball.
Hagans, known primarily as a defensive stopper, has elevated his offensive game this season and currently leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game and has been clutch from the free throw line, connecting on 52-61 (.852). He’s also making progress with his perimeter shooting and will continue to rise up NBA draft boards.
Maxey, currently projected as a first-round NBA pick, has flashed signs of greatness and Sestina is undoubtably Kentucky’s best three-point option. Maxey is averaging 13.1 points per game while Sestina brings some much needed stability and is second on the team in rebounds at 6.0 per game. Against ranked teams (Michigan State, Ohio State), Sestina has averaged 12.0 points (7, 17) and has hit 6-of-10 from three-point range (1-2, 5-8).
Nick Richards has also shown improvement against a weak non-conference schedule, but has yet to put together solid numbers against quality teams. He currently averages 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds with 25 blocks on the season.
PLAYERS WHO MUST STEP UP: Kahlil Whitey, EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards
Other than Hagans, it seems every player on Kentucky’s roster has struggled at one time or another this season as UK Coach John Calipari has started six different lineups.
The biggest surprise this season has been the dismal play of Kahlil Whitney, the former five-star recruit that had NBA scouts drooling in the pre-season. Whitney has simply been a bust early on, looking lost and confused in a random Kentucky offense that’s currently on life support. Much like a Hamidou Diallo, Whitney has tremendous athleticism and has the potential to be a special defender. However, he’s also a weak ball handler and poor shooter who struggles in the half-court offense.
EJ Montgomery remains the biggest mystery as the 6-foot-10 forward is either the best player on the floor (25 points, nine rebounds against Fairleigh Dickinson) or completely disappears (0 points in 20 minutes against Georgia Tech). The sophomore lefty has to find some balance and continue to focus on rebounding and blocking shots as his offense production will most likely be a moving target all season.
Richards is also a big piece of the puzzle and has to step up in big games. It’s one thing to get a double-double against a low mid-major program, but the real test will be how he performs against Louisville and throughout the SEC season. The most telling stat is that the 6-foot-11 center scored just two points and failed to get a single rebound against Ohio State. Bottom Line: Nick Richards must reinvent himself and fight back in 2020.
Nate Sestina also a difference-maker for Kentucky. Bottom line is Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery aren’t much of a threat on offensive end. Both put up numbers against low-majors. Sestina spaces court, makes shots and plays with intensity.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) December 21, 2019
The @KentuckyMBB team must find production from their interior players if they will be a national contender / difference tonight vs highly rated @OhioStateHoops was lack of inside production . Had strong 3 pt shooing by Nate Sestina that kept them in game . Big W for OSU 71-65— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) December 22, 2019
GLASS HALF-EMPTY: Demise of the half-court offense?
With the big goose egg in Vegas, the Chicken Little crew on social media seems to be already preparing for the end of time. In fact, it’s been open season the past few days Calipari’s coaching style, archaic offense and one-and-done culture that seemingly values NBA draftees over championship banners.
First of all, any shots at Calipari are misguided as the Hall of Fame Coach is simply one of the best in the business. In fact, he was just named Coach of the Decade by Sporting News.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that Calipari should get a free pass as woeful shooting and an inept offense has Big Blue Nation on edge this season. For all the talk about the dribble drive, positionless basketball or playing random, this team has become a predictable mess and easy to scout for opposing teams. Everything begins with a high ball screen with hopes for a scoring opportunity out of the pick-and-roll. If that breaks down, Plan B is to drive the lane, force a shot and hope for a trip to the foul line. If it sounds familiar, just watch any NBA game and you’ll see the same thing.
So here’s my argument. There’s a big difference between preparing kids for the NBA and winning college basketball games. Maybe it’s time to run a more traditional motion offense with more down screen action and the occasional back pick for an easy lay-up. How about a few set plays or quick hitters to give this team some confidence?
In the end, we just have to trust the process and hope that another young team finds it way.
What I do know is that we now have 10 years of data in the Calipari era that includes a national championship, four Final Fours and seven Elite Eight appearances. That’s enough evidence for me to be content with the process of wait for the big pay off in February and March.
7 Elite Eights— Sporting News (@sportingnews) December 23, 2019
4 Final Fours
"No one defined the 2010s in the same way as Calipari, nor achieved the same degree of consistent excellence."@KentuckyMBB's John Calipari is our college basketball Coach of the Decade. https://t.co/WweUHgNdUK
GLASS HALF-FULL: Plenty of time to right the ship
For those die-hard fans that still envision a Final Four run in March, rest assured that this Kentucky team will look much different in February as Calipari is the master of the “tweak” and getting teams to peak at the right time.
Assuming the Cats can finally get over the injury bug, this team will ultimately start knocking down shots and calls for a revamped offense will soon be put to rest. Hagans will continue to be an elite point guard and Maxey will most certainly have some big games down the stretch with his ability to score the ball. You can also expect Sestina to become the heart and soul of this team as he wraps up a stellar college career.
With so much focus on a struggling offense, it’s also easy to forget that Kentucky has the potential to be a scary good defensive unit. In fact, Hagans and Maxey alone can create havoc on the defensive end and Richards and Montgomery have the ability to control the paint as big-time rim protectors.
Most importantly, Wildcat fans should find comfort in the fact that there’s little separation this year in college basketball as blue bloods such as Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina have all lost early season non-conference games at home. Once considered unthinkable, the college basketball landscape is now up for grabs as we’ve already had six different No. 1-ranked teams.
NEXT UP: Louisville at Kentucky (December 28th)
Ironically, Kentucky’s greatest weakness is where Louisville thrives as the Cardinals are one of the best perimeter shooting teams in college basketball.
While Kentucky is ranked as one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation (.278), Louisville is one of the best (.376) and will not be intimidated by the big moment and bright lights of Rupp Arena. Coach Chris Mack has the Cardinals off to an 11-1 record that also included a short stay as the No. 1-ranked team in the country prior to losing to Texas Tech. In what some project as a down year for the SEC, this just might be the Cats last chance for a signature win to build the post-season resume.
Kentucky with a rough 72 hours in Las Vegas, going 0-2 with losses to Utah and Ohio State. Wildcats now get one week before turning around and playing Louisville in Lexington.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) December 22, 2019
Right now, Kentucky’s second-best win is over Georgia Tech.
CURRENT GRADE: C
With two losses to unranked teams, poor shooting and a make shift half-court offense, the Wildcats have looked very average at times this season. In my grade book, average is reflected as a solid C with plenty of room for improvement.
Despite a bumpy ride this season, a win over Louisville would certainly get the Cats back into the national conversation and be the gift that UK fans so desperately want this holiday season. Let’s just hope we ace the test on Saturday.