If Kentucky basketball cannot find a way to steer clear of its current struggles, perhaps the fate of this 2017-18 season was sealed way back at the end of October.
That was the week UK freshman guard Jemarl Baker, a four-star prospect from Menifee, Calif., outside of Los Angeles, underwent surgery on his left knee, leading to an absence that has stretched beyond the initial estimate of three months to what in all probability will be the entire campaign.
You remember Baker. Having originally committed to California, the 6-foot-4 guard withdrew his pledge when head coach Cuonzo Martin left Berkeley for Missouri. Having already put together a highly ranked recruiting class, UK head coach John Calipari and assistant Joel Justus swept in to lock up Baker in April.
“He’s exactly what Kentucky needed,” said Scout national analyst Evan Daniels at the time.
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Baker could shoot. He sank 94 three-pointers his senior high school season in California. He was the leading long-range shooter on the Under Armour prep circuit. ESPN ranked Baker as the 16th-best shooting guard in the class of 2017.
When officially announcing Baker’s knee surgery, Calipari said, “We were hopeful he would provide us immediate shooting.”
Oh boy, could Kentucky use that shooting now.
Twenty-four games into the season, this is easily the least potent offensive team Calipari has fielded at Kentucky. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers back that up — UK is 58th in adjusted offensive efficiency — but you did not need advanced analytics to know that for these Cats the rim seems like a moving target.
In Tuesday’s 61-59 loss to Tennessee, UK made three of 14 three-point shots, which was actually an improvement over the 2-for-20 debacle from behind the arc in last Saturday’s 69-60 loss at Missouri.
For the season, Kentucky is shooting 33.0 percent from three-point range. That ranks 262nd out of the 351 teams playing Division I basketball. Only 19.1 percent of UK’s scoring comes from three-pointers. That ranks 350th out of the same 351.
“We’re not as bad as everybody says shooting the ball,” Calipari said after the season’s second exhibition, but that declaration may have been more hope than opinion.
Here are UK’s individual three-point numbers over the last six games: Hamidou Diallo, 4-of-15; Wenyen Gabriel, 4-of-17; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 2-of-12; Quade Green, 6-of-22.
Kevin Knox is 12-of-27 in that stretch, which includes 5-for-8 during his 34-point outburst at West Virginia. The last two games, Knox is 2-of-11 from long range.
We can debate Calipari’s decision not to call timeout on UK’s next-to-last possession Tuesday night, but part of the reason Tennessee was able to trap and force Gilgeous-Alexander into a turnover is because the Vols did not have to worry about a perimeter threat.
As for Baker being the missing piece, that’s pure conjecture, of course. Perhaps Baker’s perimeter skills would not have translated to the college game. Perhaps he would have proven deficient in areas that would have kept him off the floor. The most popular player is the one not playing.
And maybe Kentucky will suddenly discover its shooting touch. For that to happen, the Cats must first dramatically improve their assist-to-turnover ratio. That has not been a positive number since the conference opener, a 66-61 win over Georgia on Dec. 31. Plus, certain Cats must start shooting above their current averages.
Green has shown flashes. He was 2-of-3 from three-point range Tuesday. Gabriel was 3-of-4 from three in UK’s loss at Tennessee. After UK’s Dec. 16 win over Virginia Tech, Gilgeous-Alexander was 6-of-13 from three-point range for the season. Since then, he’s 6-of-21.
Calipari has said he doesn’t want his teams relying heavily on three-point shooting. It’s a prescription for sudden failure. In today’s game, however, you at least need a three-point threat to keep defenses honest. Kentucky needs to find that threat. After all, Jemarl Baker isn’t walking through that door anytime soon.
No. 24 Kentucky at Texas A&M
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
KENTUCKY THREE-POINT SHOOTING UNDER CALIPARI