Few, if any, basketball observers were more familiar with this current team of Kentucky Wildcats before they came to Lexington than Evan Daniels, who kept tabs on them all as Scout.com’s national recruiting analyst.
Six of UK’s players were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school. Three others were ranked as five-star players by at least one of the major recruiting services.
That bunch just lost their fourth consecutive game Wednesday night at Auburn.
So what does Daniels — now the 247Sports director of recruiting — think about this Kentucky team?
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“They probably haven’t lived up to the talent that they have,” he told the Herald-Leader. “I’ve kind of always thought this: I don’t know that the pieces fit on this team. They’ve got a lot of the same type of guys.”
Jonathan Givony, ESPN’s lead NBA Draft analyst, told the Herald-Leader recently that UK’s roster makeup pretty much boiled down to two or three guards and a bunch of power forwards.
“I always thought that Kentucky’s roster was going to be weird,” Givony said. “The way that the roster was constructed — it makes it hard for anybody to look good, honestly.”
However John Calipari wants to classify them, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt and Sacha Killeya-Jones all check many of the same boxes in terms of position. Then there’s Nick Richards, more of an old-school center who is still learning the game. And three guards — Quade Green, Shail Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo — two of whom aren’t much of a threat from three-point range.
It’s an odd mix, to be sure.
Lack of shooting, lack of a veteran presence and lack of elite talent have all been mentioned as deficiencies with this team, though Daniels didn’t concede the latter.
“You hear everybody say they’re so young, but they do have a lot of talent,” he said.
This UK team likely doesn’t have a top-10 NBA Draft pick, Daniels acknowledged, but it does have a potential lottery pick in Knox, who is averaging 15.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and has — at times — played the part of elite talent.
“I think Kevin Knox has really had some bright moments,” Daniels said. “I think it would be unfair to knock him too much.
“Shai has played well and exceeded expectations. But I think there are also some guys on that list that haven’t lived up to expectations or played to maybe the level that everyone thought they would. And part of that’s youth.”
But it’s not as simple as that, according to Daniels.
As others have pointed out, youth alone — no matter how great the talent — doesn’t equal collective greatness.
“So much is made about recruiting one-and-dones,” Daniels said. “The formula is not, ‘one-and-done.’ The formula to winning a national championship is having plenty of elite talents but also mixing in senior leadership.”
The two biggest examples of winning a title with “one-and-done” players are the Kentucky team in 2012 and the Duke team in 2015. That UK team, of course, had senior Darius Miller in a crucial role. “He had been there and was a seasoned vet,” Daniels said.
The Duke squad had freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, sure. But the leader in minutes on that team was senior point guard Quinn Cook, and junior forward Amile Jefferson started 26 games for the Blue Devils that season.
This UK team has one player who has seen time in an NCAA Tournament game. That’s Gabriel, a sophomore who played a total of 26 minutes over four tourney games last season.
A stone-cold shooter or two would certainly help this squad — “They could really use a guy like Tyler Herro on their current team,” Daniels said, mentioning the three-point threat who will be a Wildcat next season — but the lack of experienced leadership seems to be the bigger hindrance to sustained success.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said this week that Calipari has been telling this bunch about the 2011 and 2014 Cats, who struggled in a similar fashion before making Final Four runs.
“Cal has done a great job of explaining historically what teams have been similar coming down the stretch, losing three of four, and then they clicked,” Payne said. “Having adversity and then all of a sudden you figure it out and you go out and you fight for 40 minutes. You change the landscape of where the program is and where you are as a player and where we are as a team. This team is capable. This team is more than capable, even though they’re young.”
Daniels thought he might have seen such a turning point at West Virginia a few weeks ago. But, then, UK needed overtime to beat a not-that-good Vanderbilt team in Rupp Arena and has lost four straight since.
The Cats have only five regular-season games to get things right.
“Any time that you have the level of talent that they have, there’s hope,” Daniels said. “You can never give up on a team with that much talent, but they’re obviously not playing well right now.”