John Clay

Kentucky basketball: What we know and what we don’t heading into Louisville game

Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari, third from left, instructs, from left, Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Pj Washington, Nick Richards and Kevin Knox during the first half of the team’s win over Fort Wayne in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari, third from left, instructs, from left, Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Pj Washington, Nick Richards and Kevin Knox during the first half of the team’s win over Fort Wayne in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Associated Press

We are 11 games into the Kentucky men’s basketball season. The Cats play archrival Louisville on Friday. SEC play starts Sunday. Yet I’m not sure we have any better read on John Calipari’s club than we did the day before the season opener.

Here’s what we know:

▪ The Cats are 9-2. Last Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic loss to UCLA dropped them from seventh to 16th in the AP poll. CBS Sports’ Garry Parrish’s daily rankings has them 17th. The current Ken Pomeroy numbers place them 18th. The RPI has them at No. 26. They are 38th in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

▪ A soft schedule has skewed some numbers. Jeff Sagarin’s computer, which has the Cats ranked 22nd overall, rates the schedule at No. 116 in degree of difficulty out of the 351 Division I teams. ESPN’s BPI concurs. Pomeroy puts it at No. 109. The RPI has UK’s strength of schedule at No. 46.

▪ Through 11 games, Kentucky has played just one AP ranked team. That was Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago on Nov. 14. At the time, the Jayhawks were ranked No. 4. UK lost 65-61. UCLA was No. 21 in the preseason, but the Bruins had not been ranked for four consecutive polls when they beat the Cats at the Smoothie King Center.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team’s 83-75 loss to UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic.

▪ Virginia Tech is Kentucky’s best win to date. UK beat the Hokies 93-86 on Dec. 16 in Rupp Arena. The opponent from the ACC was 9-1 overall at the time. Yet a soft schedule of their own had kept Buzz Williams’ team out of the rankings, as well.

▪ Kentucky is young. Perhaps you’ve heard. Very young, in fact. Of all Calipari’s young Kentucky teams, this is his youngest. It’s the least experienced team in the country, according to Pomeroy’s metrics. In fact, it’s the least experienced team in the 11 years since Pomeroy started calculating such things.

Here’s what we don’t know:

▪ How much this team can improve. Because of the aforementioned youth, the thought pattern all along was that if the Cats struggled early, they would be much better by March. The hope was they would be so much better, they would be tough to deal with at tournament time. Even that, however, seems contingent on some other factors.

▪ Are the Cats strong enough at point guard? Calipari’s better teams have excelled at the point. John Wall. Brandon Knight. Marquis Teague. Andrew Harrison. Tyler Ulis. De’Aaron Fox. This year, Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have shared the spot. Both are talented. Yet neither has quite mastered the art of directing the offense.

▪ Is Kevin Knox more than just a shooter? The NBA Draft experts consider the freshman forward UK’s best pro prospect. He does lead the team in scoring, but he settles for jumpers more than Calipari would like. And at 6-9, Knox has just 10 offensive rebounds in 11 games. He also leads the team in turnovers. There’s work to be done.

Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel says UK can learn from 83-75 loss to UCLA.

▪ Can Hamidou Diallo shoot? That was the question entering the season and I’m still not sure we have a clear-cut answer. Against Virginia Tech, when the redshirt freshman drained four of seven three-point attempts, the answer was yes. Against UCLA, when Diallo was 1-of-5, the answer was no.

▪ Can PJ Washington be a consistent presence? An engaged Washington shows why Rivals ranked him the 15th-best prospect in the Class of 2018. At times, however, the 6-7 forward all but disappears. Five times he’s scored in double figures; six times he has not. Only once has he scored in double figures in back-to-back games.

▪ Will Jarred Vanderbilt play this year? The 6-7 freshman could definitely provide a boost. Yet no one is saying exactly where Vanderbilt stands with regard to the foot he injured in preseason. Optimists claim video stills revealed him practicing in New Orleans. Others whisper he’s likely to sit out the season. So far, his status is as mysterious as his team.

Pomeroy rankings of UK’s opponents so far

  • 6 - Kansas
  • 37 - Virginia Tech
  • 52 - UCLA
  • 75 - Vermont
  • 94 - East Tennessee State
  • 142 - Monmouth
  • 149 - Utah Valley
  • 157 - Fort Wayne
  • 170 - Harvard
  • 172 - Troy
  • 214 - UIC

Note: kenpom.com ranks Louisville 32nd.

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