Thirteen games into the season, the Kentucky Wildcats seem to be on the verge of finding an identity. With the loss of Julius Randle for much of the second half against the Louisville Cardinals, their offense and defense seem to come together. This was their first bit of adversity and they responded well. Having said that, I still have questioned which teams pose the greatest match-up problems for the Wildcats and what area/player for the Kentucky Wildcats must improve for us to hang Banner #9. A few weeks ago I emailed two national sportswriters, Eric Prisbell of USA Today and Mike DeCourcyof Sporting News and asked those very questions…and they answered. Mind you, we hadn’t played the brutal stretch of five games where we lost to Baylor and North Carolina, but the questions were worded with the future in mind. So, with that in mind, here are the questions and their answers.
Which team(s) in the country presents the greatest match-up problems for Kentucky and why?
Arizona and Kansas would present some issues for Kentucky. The Wildcats have an incredible amount of size, so I believe the teams that would give Kentucky the most issues are other teams with an abundance of size. Arizona looks like the most complete team in the country right now and – if there victory over Duke was any indication – they stand a good chance to win any team in the country right now. In addition to their sheer size, guards T.J. McConnell Nick Johnson give Sean Miller’s team the backcourt necessary to beat just about anyone. As for Kansas, the Jayhawks are facing some of the same issues as Kentucky. With ultra-talented freshmen, the question is which freshmen will improve the most come March. I’ve long said that Joel Embiid could be a force by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around. To be clear, Kentucky has a chance – a very good chance – to beat any team on any given night. And the Wildcats will be much better in March and April – that’s why I picked them to win the national title – but I believe Arizona and Kansas would pose the biggest threats.
This is a difficult question to answer so early. Whatever weaknesses the Wildcats possess aren’t really apparent yet; they’re not even close to fully formed. For a team at this stage, a Michigan State that is experienced and reasonably tough is a serious issue. But that maturity gap will close by the end of the year. I suspect in the end Kentucky’s greatest problem will be facing a complete team with a dynamic singular scorer. There aren’t many of those out there, unless Andrew Wiggins becomes comfortable in such a role or P.J. Hairston gets out of NCAA limbo. Louisville and Duke are great and would be dangerous in any one-game scenario, but until each fixes its center spot it wouldn’t fit the category.
In order for Kentucky to win a national championship, the area of their game or player that must greatly improve is _______________ and why?
It is easy to say three-point shooting because they shoot the three-pointer so poorly and only rely on it for 18.2 percent of their total points, which is very, very low. The three-pointer, of course, is the great equalizer and may allow inferior opponents to hang around against the Wildcats when they have no business hanging around against the Wildcats. On the other hand, Kentucky is so strong on the interior, that if anyone can compensate for erratic – or virtually nonexistent – outside shooting, this may be the team. The player that I would like to see really grow is Andrew Harrison. I thought before the season that there were five super elite freshmen – Wiggins, Randle, Parker, Gordon and Harrison. He has had more of a learning curve than some may have expected. I don’t want to overreact. He’s a freshman guard on a team with a ton of freshmen. He’ll get better, likely a lot better, by March. And that will be fun to watch and make the Wildcats that much more difficult to beat.
Perimeter defense. I believe this team will be a fluid, dangerous offensive team as it develops. There are so many options, and Randle is a force. I would most worry about how this team would cope with an overwhelming wing scorer. It is UK’s advantage that there aren’t a ton of such players on contending teams; Jabari Parker and Russ Smith nationally, Jordan McRae in the SEC. In that sense, upcoming games with Louisville and Tennessee will be beneficial to the team’s development.
Cards on the table, though the hellish stretch of the five games against Baylor, Boise State, Providence, North Carolina, and Belmont has come and gone, they offered insight into record projection and the impact of those games as the season rolls on. It’s uncanny how good these guys are.
Kentucky’s next 5 games are against teams with a combined record of 34-6 with North Carolina having defeated both Louisville and, then #1, Michigan State. So, how will Kentucky fare over the next 5 games in terms of record and growth?
Make no mistake, this is a difficult five-game stretch for any team, much less a team that relies so heavily on players who were in high school last spring. All five opponents rank among the top 64 in the KenPom ratings. The Wildcats will grow tremendously during this period, regardless of how they fare on the court. I think they’ll escape this gauntlet with a 4-1 record, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they went 3-2. And there’s no shame in that. If they win all five games, watch out, everybody. Baylor obviously has the talent and depth to challenge UK. Boise State is one of the nation’s most underrated teams. Good luck figuring out which UNC team will show up; but they are capable of beating anyone. Belmont, of course, is one of the nation’s most well-coached teams and already won in Chapel Hill. And Louisville ain’t bad, if you have not noticed. Bottom line, Kentucky will be far better in January because of this stretch of games.
I think the UK schedule has been built very impressively to consistently escalate the challenges the Wildcats will face. That’s not to say every single team is incrementally better than the one before, but it’s not far from that. I think that’s why Calipari said what he did about the Michigan State game. Because of the Spartans’ experience, it threw off the whole equation. I don’t think he’d have been as bothered if UK simply had taken a shot at its youth vs. that of Duke or Kansas. It just happened that the rotation of the Champions Classic put this group of Wildcats in the least advantageous position.