Five reasons for pessimism going into the 2017-18 season:
1. There’s no obvious player to be a dominant point guard.
As even a casual college basketball fan knows, Kentucky has been synonymous with standout point guards in John Calipari’s first eight seasons as coach. John Wall, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis and De’Aaron Fox come immediately to mind. Not so coincidentally, UK has averaged 30.4 victories per season in that time. By contrast, Calipari spoke of how UK played at times with three point guards last season (Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe and Fox), but could have none this season. Kentucky recruited Quade Green to be this season’s point guard/floor leader. His lack of size (6-foot tall) gives Calipari pause and prompts talk of not having a point guard in the classic sense.
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2. No clear outside shooting.
It seemed telling that after the Blue-White Game, Calipari volunteered advice to future opponents. To sag a defense into the lane and invite the Cats to shoot perimeter shots was to “surrender,” he said. Do opponents seriously look for advice on how to beat Kentucky from the Kentucky coach? PJ Washington said opponents “are supposed” to try to limit drives to the basket area, which an athletic team like UK figures to do well. Like with much about this team, it’s unclear how well the Cats can shoot from the perimeter. It became less clear when UK announced that Jemarl Baker will be out three months. But it figures that opponents will sag defenses to blunt the dribble-drive and put an emphasis on transition defense to limit UK’s early offense. Kevin Knox said he expected the first 10 opponents to sag their defenses. That may have been a conservative estimate.
3. No clearly reliable inside scorer.
Time will tell if there is a DeMarcus Cousins or Karl-Anthony Towns on this Kentucky team. Such a player would come in handy. This became clear two seasons ago when UK made do without a low-post scorer (making do by Kentucky standards was a 27-9 record). Such a player can be relied upon to score or get fouled or both. Thus, a team can blunt an opponent’s momentum by throwing the ball into a low-post scoring threat. The Kentucky team of two seasons ago was susceptible to a decisive scoring run by an opponent. An 84-77 come-from-ahead loss at Tennessee comes immediately to mind. It’s way too early to make any judgments on the current Cats. And it helps to keep in mind how much Towns improved as a low-post scorer in 2014-15.
More than once this preseason, Calipari has talked about how the current Cats need to learn how to win. Talent alone is not enough, he says. Valuing each possession. Staying in a defensive stance. Taking no plays off. Compete! We’ll probably hear this advice again and again. Kentucky has eight freshmen who have not played a college game. The top seven scorers from last season are gone. Of the “veterans,” Wenyen Gabriel made only one of his final 19 shots last season, while Sacha Killeya-Jones did not play after Jan. 21 and Tai Wynyard made only one basket after Nov. 28. Even by Kentucky’s one-and-done standards, this is an inexperienced team. As Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said, “We don’t pay attention to details sometimes.” Kentucky will need that to change.
5. SEC stacked.
Although Kentucky cannot avoid learning through trial and error, it’s not the best year to do so. The SEC is stacked. In its preseason magazine, Athlon projected eight league teams playing in the 2018 NCAA Tournament: UK, Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Missouri. “I don’t remember the bottom half of the league as good as the bottom half this year,” Florida Coach Mike White said. Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy spoke of SEC basketball gaining respect and changing the “national narrative.”
Five reasons for optimism
1. Kevin Knox looks like he could be really good.
Both NBADraft.net and CBSSports.com project Knox to be a lottery pick. Each has him being taken with the ninth pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. First impressions suggest his collection of skills make him the kind of player to elevate the play of teammates. And, of course, it helps to have talented teammates. NBADraft.net has Nick Richards as another lottery pick. CBSSports.com puts that designation on two other UK players: Jarred Vanderbilt and Hamidou Diallo. As recent history suggests, an exceptional freshman (Anthony Davis) or a group of freshmen (Duke, 2015) can achieve at the highest level.
2. Size and depth mean this team will not be easy to beat.
Size isn’t everything, but it’s something. UK has six players 6-9 or taller. Maybe that’s one reason Calipari floats the idea of using a zone defense, at least on occasion. Five players ranging from 6-6 to 6-10 figure to be able to defend from sideline to sideline. However much zone Kentucky plays (the smart money says UK will play zone infrequently, if at all), the UK coach will have multiple buttons to push when problems arise. There’s likely to be a correct button on most occasions.
3. Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker could be back.
As reporters peppered him with questions following the Blue-White Game, Calipari had a telling question of his own. “You’ve got this many questions on a scrimmage?” he asked. Of course, it’s way too early for definitive answers. But it might be helpful to keep in mind two possible answers to future questions: Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker. Each sat out the preseason because of foot and knee problems, respectively. Vanderbilt, who was initially projected to be sidelined until January, may return sooner. He’s noted for his passing, a skill that can elevate teammates. And Calipari has talked about making a point-forward a key this season. Baker might ease concerns about perimeter shooting if he makes his scheduled return from recent knee surgery during SEC play.
4. Athleticism and seeming willingness to please equals defense.
Early in the preseason, Calipari said the Wildcats could be a good defensive team “if we choose to be.” It would seem the players will make that choice. They’ve seemed willing, even eager, to follow instruction. Kentucky has plenty of size and athleticism. Those qualities seem to be foundational pieces for any good team and any good defense. UK wants defense to generate offense. The best scenario would have a steal or the opponent’s bad shot unleashing a Kentucky fast break that ends at the rim. Kentucky will have an abundance of finishers. Jump shots? We don’t need no stinking jump shots.
5. Cal’s track record.
As Sacha Killeya-Jones said of Calipari’s history of coaching success, “He’s basically got this down to a science.” Calipari’s track record should be a comfort. No coach is more experienced at dealing with inexperience. With a bit more good fortune, he could have guided Kentucky to four national championships (2011, 2014 and 2015 in addition to the title won in 2012). With his UMass team of 1995-96 and Memphis team of 2007-08, we’re talking six national championships. That record of success, plus 27 ex-Cats on opening-night NBA rosters equals unquestionable credibility. Calipari will show the way. The players will follow.