Can this team win a championship?
That’s what it boils down to, right?
This is Kentucky, after all, college basketball’s gold standard. John Calipari can fixate on the NBA Draft, but to the fans it’s all about championship banners. Kentucky hangs eight. Big Blue Nation wants a ninth. Same as it ever was. Or will be.
So, based on what we’ve seen to this point, is this team good enough to win an NCAA title?
Let’s start by breaking down the talent:
Malik Monk: The freshman beat North Carolina (47 points) and Georgia (37). He is learning how to get to the free throw line, but needs to join the crash-the-glass effort. He has zero rebounds over the last two games. Still, when on, Monk is a monster. ESPN’s Chad Ford ranks him as the sixth best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft.
De’Aaron Fox: Lightning fast as advertised, Fox is not yet a perimeter threat. He’s made a paltry 18.2 percent of his three-point shots. Rajon Rondo made 30.3 percent and John Wall 32.5 their freshmen years. Still, Draft Express ranks Fox as the draft’s eighth best prospect.
Isaiah Briscoe: The sophomore has improved his free throw and three-point shooting. He makes things happen, though not all good all the time. Briscoe leads the team in turnovers. He’s also dropped to No. 81 on the Chad Ford big board. (Could he back for a junior year?)
Bam Adebayo: Bam can jam with the best. He hasn’t enjoyed a double-digit rebound game since Dec. 3, however. He’s still learning how to play with fouls. And he has slipped to No. 27 on Ford’s Top 100 list. “One NBA exec compared him to Florida’s Patric Young,” wrote ESPN’s draft analyst. “He looks the part, but doesn’t always play the part.”
Wenyen Gabriel: The freshman is fresh off a career-high 23 points against LSU, though Calipari praised Briscoe for creating Gabriel’s shots. The native of South Sudan has run hot and cold, so the hope is Tuesday signaled the start of a sizzle streak.
Derek Willis: If Gabriel is up, Willis is down. The senior has scored just four points the last two games. His troubles at the defensive end persist, but his experience could pay off as his college career winds down.
Mychal Mulder: Before being derailed by illness, the senior was a solid contributor off the bench. Mulder can make the three. He can rebound. Surely, by tourney time he will have shed enough rust to make a difference in a game that matters.
Isaac Humphries: The sophomore hasn’t made good on preseason notices regarding improvement. His numbers are better — 3.3 points and 3.6 rebounds this season compared to 1.9 and 2.4 last — but the Australian must up his game to give Calipari a viable frontcourt option off the bench.
Dominique Hawkins: The senior is athletic and a tenacious defender, but the offense hasn’t materialized. Hawkins is shooting just 32.9 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from three. He has to affect the game in other ways.
So what’s the effect of the sum of the parts? Expected to steamroll a weak SEC, the Cats are in a three-way tie for first place with South Carolina and Florida. At home, they beat the Gamecocks by 16. On the road, they lost to Florida by 22.
In Tuesday’s 92-85 win over LSU, the offense showed signs of a return to glory. The defense remains a major worry. LSU scored 58 points in the second half, the most by a UK opponent since 2008. Calipari hasn’t been able to shut off the alarm.
On the bright side, there seems to be no dominant college hoops team this season. All have pluses and minuses. All have experienced ups and downs. Even the best have holes.
Kentucky belongs in that latter category. Can it still win a title? Yes, but the holes might be too numerous for these Cats to fill.
Kentucky’s final seven regular-season games
Feb. 11 at Alabama — The Crimson Tide is coming off a 90-86, four-overtime win at South Carolina that knocked the Gamecocks out of sole possession of first place in the SEC.
Feb. 14 vs. Tennessee — The Vols beat UK 82-80 in Knoxville on Jan. 24.
Feb. 18 at Georgia — Kentucky needed an overtime and 37 points from Malik Monk to beat the Bulldogs 90-81 in Rupp Arena on Jan. 31.
Feb. 21 at Missouri — Mizzou won its first SEC game of the season last Saturday, beating Arkansas.
Feb. 25 vs. Florida — The rematch with the Gators, who drilled Calipari’s Cats 88-66 in Gainesville last Saturday.
Feb. 28 vs. Vanderbilt — UK beat the Commodores 87-81 in Nashville on Jan. 10.
March 4 at Texas A&M — Kentucky clobbered the Aggies 100-58 way back on Jan. 3.