Even before UK’s current three-game losing streak — the first such skid under John Calipari — fans, pundits and the Wildcats’ coach himself had been offering various diagnoses to what ails this young Kentucky basketball team.
Three such problems were pinpointed even before the season started, and all three remain problems 25 games into this campaign, which is entering a troublesome stretch of over the next few weeks.
The lack of elite talent, veteran leadership and outside shooting were all seen as possible hindrances to another Final Four run months ago as the 2017 recruiting cycle was coming to a close, long before the first ball was tipped in November.
Anyone who can read a roster or has watched much UK basketball at all this season knows that all three have indeed been major issues for the Cats. More troubling for the immediate future of this team: by pretty much any objective measure, this has been the worst of Calipari’s nine teams at Kentucky in all three of those categories.
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The definition of “elite” when it comes to incoming basketball recruits is obviously somewhat arbitrary, but settling on the top 10 recruits in any given class is typically a pretty good place to start. Much as some like to dismiss recruiting rankings by throwing out the inevitable outliers, recent top 10 lists have been accurate indicators of a prospect’s ability to have an instant impact at the college level.
Those rankings have also been a solid indicator of Calipari’s past seasons at UK.
His first six teams all included at least one top-5 national recruit (and often multiple top-10 prospects), according to each year’s composite rankings. Four of those teams reached the Final Four and a fifth (the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins team in 2010) rolled through the regular season before losing in the Elite Eight.
The sixth team in that group had just one top-5 recruit — No. 1 overall player Nerlens Noel, who was injured late in the 2012-13 season. If Noel hadn’t been sidelined, that UK team still probably wouldn’t have advanced to the Elite Eight, but those Cats almost certainly would’ve made the NCAA Tournament, where anything can happen.
Calipari’s last two teams also had multiple top-10 recruits: Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray (plus senior Alex Poythress, a former top-10 recruit) two seasons ago, and De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo last year. (And Malik Monk was ranked No. 11).
This season’s team is the first under Calipari with zero top-five national recruits and only one top-10 recruit: Hamidou Diallo, who was No. 10 in the 2017 composite rankings and has struggled mightily in conference play.
Neither Diallo nor No. 11-ranked recruit Kevin Knox has approached the type of transcendent talent that Calipari had with Wall, Fox, Murray, Noel, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns and others in past seasons.
“This is not vintage Kentucky talent,” ESPN’s Dick Vitale told the Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton last week. “Anybody in their right mind will tell you that.”
The numbers — both in the recruiting rankings and on the court — back that up.
Another trait common to nearly all of Calipari’s most successful teams: at least one key player has been a veteran of UK basketball.
The lack of such a player has also been a common trait in Calipari’s lesser teams.
Three of UK’s last four Final Four teams have had at least one returning upperclassmen play more than 500 minutes in that season.
DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson were all starters on the 2011 squad. Miller was a key player once again on the 2012 national title team. Willie Cauley-Stein was a junior and one of the best players in the country while leading the 38-1 team in minutes three years after that.
The only exception there was the 2013-14 team, which advanced to the title game after struggling to an 8 seed. The seven players who played the major minutes on that team consisted of five freshmen and two sophomores (but six of those players had been top-10 recruits coming out of high school).
The only other teams that had zero returning upperclassmen play more than 500 minutes in a season: the NIT squad in 2013 and this year’s team, which is made up of eight scholarship freshmen and three scholarship sophomores. The 2013 team, at least, had graduate transfer Julius Mays and junior guard Jarrod Polson to provide some semblance of veteran presence.
“It seems like every team in the country is struggling, and the veteran teams are the ones who are doing well,” Calipari said last week. “We’re all probably trying to do the same thing. How are we going to get this, the dots — cross the Ts, dot the Is, connect everything? The kids are trying. It’s just, it’s not easy.”
This UK team can’t do anything about those first two categories. The Cats aren’t growing by years and they’re not getting any more “elite” in the next few weeks.
They could improve their three-point shooting, but there’s no sign that Calipari’s worst group in that area is on track to do much better anytime soon.
This UK team is making just 4.88 three-pointers per game and shooting 33.3 percent from long range. The number of makes per game is last in the Calipari era, and the Cats’ percentage this season is just two-tenths of a point better than the 2009-10 team, which made 6.08 threes per game.
“This should be a good shooting team …” Calipari said Friday. “We’re a good shooting team that’s just not making shots. I hate to tell you, they’re open and some of them are missed badly, and that worries me with some of these guys. How did you miss that that badly? What is — where is your mindset right now? Because most of shooting is in their mind.”
Calipari said that before UK’s loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. The Cats shot 6-for-15 from three-point range in that game — actually one of their best in that category in SEC play — but the larger sample size over the past few weeks is grim. UK is 41-for-145 on threes over its last 10 games. That’s 28.2 percent.
The preseason injury to Jemarl Baker — the Cats’ most-proven shooter as a recruit — certainly didn’t help, but Baker wasn’t expected to play major minutes on this team. Quade Green was the next-best outside shooting recruit, and he leads the Cats at 37.5 percent this season. Knox (34.8 percent) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (35.3 percent but just 12 makes) were seen as improving but inconsistent outside shooters in high school. Hamidou Diallo (31 percent) was not a highly regarded prospect in that area.
Those hanging on to some hope for another magical March run have mentioned the 2013-14 team and, to a lesser extent, the 2010-11 team as possible blueprints for this similarly struggling bunch of Wildcats to follow.
The bad news there is that each of those teams excelled in at least one of the above problem areas for this season’s team.
The 2011 squad that went 2-6 on the road in the SEC before advancing to the Final Four as a No. 4 seed was Calipari’s best three-point shooting team, ranking first in the Cal era in both made three-pointers (7.39 per game) and three-point percentage (39.7). That team also had the experience factor with three returning upperclassmen as starters: Harrellson, Liggins and Miller.
The 2014 squad had the sheer talent to overcome other shortcomings that this team seemingly lacks. That team featured five top-10 national recruits (Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson), plus a sixth player, sophomore Alex Poythress, who had been ranked a top-10 recruit in the previous class.
“Each week that goes by, it gets harder and harder to get this thing to where you want it to go,” Calipari said Saturday night. “But I’ll say it again, I’m not cracking. I’m not wavering. I hate losing. Can’t stand it. Liked our first half, thought, ‘OK, maybe we busted through and then we let go of the rope.’ When things go bumpy guys just let go because, ‘My stuff’s not right so I’m just hanging my head,’ which is what young kids do. And we’ve got to break that.”
Kentucky plays at SEC-leading Auburn on Wednesday night.
UK teams under Coach John Calipari
Top 10 recruits
Note: Experience = returning upperclassman who played more than 500 minutes in that season.