Kentucky basketball has 4 very real problems
The Wilcats were exposed in a big way against Duke. Kentucky basketball didn’t just start the season with national championship aspirations — it was installed as the preseason favorite by many of the sport’s biggest names. Hours before Kentucky would tip-off against Duke in the Champions Classic, a panel of 31 ESPN experts gave their Final Four and national title predictions. Ten people picked the Wildcats as national champions and 19 pegged them to go to the Final Four. Kansas was the second most popular title with half the votes. Only two people thought Duke would cut down the nets in Minneapolis. The preseason polls reflected this, putting Kentucky as the consensus No. 2 behind only the Jayhawks. The Wildcats were a one-point favorite heading into the matchup against Duke. You know how that turned out. Kentucky proceeded to get humbled and humiliated by the Blue Devils with the entire country watching, getting run off the floor 118-84 in what amounted to the biggest loss of John Calipari’s coaching career at any level. It was only one game, yes, but it was the type of blowout that makes college basketball fans reconsider everything they thought they knew going into the season. Why was Kentucky supposed to be so good in the first place? The sales pitch on Kentucky was simple: it had depth, experience, and blue chip talent up-and-down the roster. We’re used to Kentucky being all freshmen, but that isn’t the case this season. Reid Travis was the biggest transfer on the market this season after spending four years putting up huge scoring and rebounding numbers at Stanford. He gave Kentucky a go-to offensive force in the paint. Seemingly everything else would fall into place around him, starting with big man P.J. Washington, who should be one of the best sophomores in the country. Kentucky also returned point guard Quade Green, center Nick Richards and shooter Jemarl Baker for their second seasons. Of course, there’s also a strong freshmen class, which ranked No. 2 overall in the country by 247 Sports, only behind Duke. It included five-star prospects E.J. Montgomery (a 6’10 forward), point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, and wing Keldon Johnson. Shooting guard Tyler Herro was considered a four-star prospect by 247 Sports, but was an opening night starter. In total, Kentucky had eight five-star recruits and seven McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster. No other team in the country could touch that type of pedigree. Still, there was reason to have some reservations. I put Kentucky at No. 6 in my preseason countdown, noticeably lower than where everyone else had them. The game against Duke exposed those concerns in a big way. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images What are Kentucky’s issues? It feels like they have three big problems with the roster, plus one other lingering issue that should be in the back of its mind. A lack of shooting As I wrote at the time, a lack of shooting was a problem for Kentucky last season that underlines a bigger issue in how Calipari recruits. Cal wants the biggest, fastest, highest-rated prospect at every position. That often comes at the expense of fit. It’s going to be a worry once again. Kentucky fans will point to Herro as the type of shooter this team needs. Here’s the problem: in the modern game, one shooter isn’t enough. You need shooting at three positions on the floor at minimum. Villanova won the national championship last year in large part because it put five shooters on the floor at the same time. Travis is a non-shooter who also only blocked nine shots the last two seasons combined at Stanford. If he can’t stretch the floor or protect the rim, how useful is he in the modern game? Washington appears to have some potential as a shooter, but hasn’t proven it yet. Starting two traditional big men — no matter how talented they are — is going to present spacing problems right off the bat. Outside of Herro, there isn’t much shooting on the perimeter, either. Johnson is capable from behind the three-point line, but it isn’t the strength of his game. Opposing defenses will make him prove his shot all year long. The point guard contingent only offers more questions. Shaky point guard play Kentucky found a gem last year in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who went from an overlooked four-star recruit to the Wildcats’ best player. Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t supposed to be a one-and-done, but he ended up being a lottery pick. Now Kentucky is searching for its new point guard, with three good options but no clear answer. Ashton Hagans: Reclassified (ie: skipped his senior year of high school) to join Kentucky in June. He was ranked as the No. 12 overall prospect in his class by 247 Sports. At 6’4, he’s an incredible defender who immediately earned Calipari’s respect by starting against Duke. The problem is he’s still a work in progress offensively and isn’t a catch-and-shoot threat. Immanuel Quickley: A 6’3 guard ranked No. 22 in his class. Quickely offers the best two-way potential of the bunch, combining length defensively (6’8 wingspan) with good passing instincts and an impressive feel for the game. He isn’t terribly explosive going to the rim and his shooting ability remains in development, but he should be a solid starter down the line. He just isn’t at the De’Aaron Fox level UK fans are used to. Quade Green: A sophomore, and the best shooter of the bunch after hitting 37 percent of his threes last year. He does not seem to be Calipari’s favorite: he played only played 16 minutes against Duke and finished with one point and three assists. Kentucky desperately needs Green to step up and take command of the offense the way another sophomore, Tyler Ulis, once did. If that doesn’t happen immediately, Kentucky has one less shooter on the floor and will ultimately still be searching for its go-to point guard. Fewer freshmen studs than they’re used to Keldon Johnson was quietly great against Duke, refusing to back down from the Blue Devils’ trio of superstar freshmen and finishing with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field. He’s Kentucky’s best prospect and potentially its best player. He’s also noticeably a cut or two below Duke’s freshmen stars. Kentucky fans are used to freshmen like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. John Calipari recruited all of them, but each chose Durham over Lexington. Instead, Johnson might be Kentucky’s only first round NBA draft pick this year. He won’t go in the top-five, and it’ll be a fight for him to go in the top-10. ESPN currently has him projected at No. 7. If you’re banking on one-and-dones, you need players at the level of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, De’Aaron Fox, and Karl-Anthony Towns. If not, you need multiple freshmen at the level of Trey Lyles, Malik Monk, Devin Booker, Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox. Kentucky’s recruiting class looks great on paper at No. 2 overall, but it doesn’t have the type of instant impact freshmen Calipari typically brings in. Johnson is going to be really good. Tyler Herro will rebound from a rough showing against Duke. Even Montgomery has considerable upside. It’s a great recruiting class by normal standards, just not Kentucky standards. The SEC is going to be tougher than usual Don’t forget Tennessee and Auburn split the regular season league title last year. Both return most of their stars and begin the year in the top-10 of the polls. LSU and Florida are legit. Mississippi State looks good. Vanderbilt is improved too behind Darius Garland, the type of freshman impact point guard Kentucky desperately needed this year. SEC basketball isn’t a joke anymore. Kentucky might still be the favorite, but it’s going to be incredibly difficult just to win the league, let alone make good on their national title aspirations. Again, the Duke debacle was one game. Maybe we’ll be sitting here in April laughing at these concerns. But there are real issues, and the Duke blowout exposed them to a national audience. Kentucky will still be a quality team, but maybe they aren’t as elite as some thought.