In the NCAA’s NET rankings, Kentucky is the sixth-best team in the league and 32nd nationally, just a few spots ahead of Missouri, which hosts the Cats in their tricky SEC opener Wednesday night. The Tigers are 11-1, and although that lone loss was a doozy — by 28 points at home against Kansas — they’ve beaten Wichita State on the road and just smoked Illinois by 22 on a neutral court. Which is to say, their body of work, like half the league, is more impressive than Kentucky’s.
These underwhelming Wildcats are 2-3 against top-100 opponents, and even that is deceptive. They lost to the three best teams they’ve faced (Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA), and their strongest win came against a Michigan team ranked 80th in the NET. Those struggles against quality competition are especially concerning when you consider the gauntlet ahead. In the next 17 days, Kentucky will play (per the NET) at No. 40 Missouri, No. 81 LSU at home, then at No. 8 Alabama and at No. 3 Tennesse. All told, there are nine games left against current top-40 teams, including Jan. 28 at Rupp Arena against Kansas, and 13 against top-100 opponents.
Glass half full: That’s a lot of chances to right the ship and build an NCAA Tournament resume. Half empty: Also ample opportunity to implode before they even get to February, much less March. A third way to look at this: You can’t lose in the first round again if you don’t even make the dance, right?
Kidding aside, we still think this is a tournament team. Probably. Maybe. Well, at least we should have a better feel for that very soon. But it’s inarguably alarming that so much remains unanswered about a team for whom five of the top six guys in minutes played are seniors. This is not one of John Calipari’s many freshman-heavy teams that logically requires a longer learning curve. Yet there he was after last week’s closer-than-expected win over Florida A&M, saying, “We’re still a work in progress, and I would tell everybody, just be patient. You know, if you’ve watched me work and coach in the past, it takes time to get it all together.”
That is, of course, beyond absurd. Kentucky was a 38.5-point favorite over the Rattlers, who rank 359th out of 363 Division I teams in the NET and are winless against fellow D1 opponents. FAMU lost to Georgia by 22, Miami by 26, Oregon by 35, Portland by 37 and Florida by 40, but trailed Kentucky by seven with six minutes to go. The final score, 88-68, looked fine. But the picture of this season so far for the Wildcats does not. It’s ugly, and it could get uglier.
“I’m not panicked,” Calipari said. Should he be, though? We have thoughts, heading into league play.
1. It’s time for an offensive coordinator
Or at least someone on the staff with a grasp of modern offensive basketball, the courage to challenge Calipari and the juice to get a hard-headed Hall of Famer to actually listen. No reasonable person could have watched the first 11 games of this season — or most of the last three seasons — and reach any other conclusion but that Kentucky’s offense has grown stale, predictable, and simple to game-plan against. It’s even more troubling that Calipari sounds as if he’s in denial about the problem. After his team scored 69 points in a rock-fight win over Yale, he said he wasn’t overly concerned about his team’s half-court offense because, “I think we’re in the top 15 in efficiency,” apparently citing the Ken Pomeroy rankings, which demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of how those ratings work. (They’re not really representative of the actual results of a season until well into conference play.) Calipari continued: “No, I mean, if I thought we were really struggling, yeah, I’d look at new things.”
News flash: You’re really struggling. Kentucky scored 53 points, fifth-fewest in 14 years under Calipari, in its next game, a loss to UCLA. Now, to the advanced stats that actually tell us something. Filtering for results against top-100 opponents (read: teams with a pulse), according to Bart Torvik’s algorithm, the Cats rank 128th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.
To his credit, Calipari had changed his tune a bit after the UCLA debacle, saying on his call-in radio show two days later, “I know we’re not OK offensively right now, and I know we’ve got to tweak some things. We’ve got to play a little differently.”
But then the next game, against Florida A&M, his answer was a starting lineup of Sahvir Wheeler, Cason Wallace, Chris Livingston, Lance Ware and Oscar Tshiebwe. Days away from the year 2023, when our dreams of flying cars have been replaced by the beautiful reality of a sport dominated by spacing and shooting, Calipari’s immediate response to a sputtering offense was to play two centers and a point guard (Wheeler) that’s not any kind of threat from distance. The man needs an intervention.
2. Maybe also time for a free-throw coach?
This one is actually far more confounding than the overall offensive malaise. At least that one wasn’t a total shock. But this team has good, proven free-throw shooters — and every one of them has regressed. Antonio Reeves shot 81.8 percent at the line last season at Illinois State. He’s dipped to 73.7 percent this season at UK. Wheeler hit 78 percent of his freebies last season, just 59.1 percent this season. Jacob Toppin made 76 percent over his first two seasons in Lexington, just 63.9 percent this season. And Cason Wallace, an 80 percent free-throw shooter as a senior in high school and 84 percent on the Nike grassroots circuit, has made just 54.5 percent at the stripe for the Wildcats.
This looked like it might be Calipari’s best free-throw shooting team, and right now, it’s the second-worst. Kentucky ranks 301st nationally at 66.5 percent, ahead of only the 2013 NIT team (64.2 percent) in the Cal era. Past performances and current struggles suggest it’s less about form and more about fortitude with this group. That’s even scarier, isn’t it?
“The free-throw shooting is driving me crazy,” Calipari said, “because we should be one of the best in the country. We’re missing the front end of one-and-ones, like badly, like demoralizing. That is mental toughness.”
He pointed out that against high-major opponents — Michigan State, Gonzaga, Michigan and UCLA — Kentucky has made just 58.9 percent of its free throws.
“You can’t win games shooting 58 percent,” he said. “Making free throws is how you advance. We’ve got to do it. We haven’t been doing it. We’re doing different things (in practice) and making them shoot one-and-ones, make 10 in a row, make 100 before you leave the gym.”
All of which runs counter to Calipari’s longtime philosophy, but desperate times call for desperate measures. When you stink at something, maybe you should actually practice it. Just don’t talk about it, because apparently this is a mentally fragile team.
“I really believe the more attention you bring to it, the worse it gets,” Calipari said.
So Kentucky has the yips? Oh, cool, we’re totally sure everything is fine. That’s not worrisome at all.
3. Cason Wallace is still the way forward
We’ve established that Florida A&M is terrible, but Wallace’s performance against the Rattlers was still impressive: 27 points, 10-of-15 shooting, 5 of 6 from deep, nine assists, four steals. Wallace is the closest thing Kentucky has to a go-to guy in the backcourt, somebody who can put the whole team on his back and carry them, and Calipari absolutely must lean into that idea.
‘Kentucky’s ceiling is Cason:’ Freshman guard could define Wildcats’ way forward
The coach said something interesting after the FAMU game: “We’ve got to keep working with him as he plays point. Decision-making, seeing the court better. But he’s a terrific player.” Rewind that. “As he plays point.” That part. That’s the part. Put the ball in his hands, move Wheeler to the bench as a super sub in small doses, and roll with that. Maybe Calipari is starting to see the light on that one.
Wheeler, the miniature and maddening senior who could lead the SEC in assists for a third straight season but who also seems to lose his mind at the end of tight games, played 34-plus minutes in four straight games before logging only 20 against Florida A&M. After he hit 5 of 14 shots with one assist against Yale, then turned it over six times against UCLA, it’s increasingly clear that Wheeler needs to become a second-unit guy. Especially if Calipari insists on playing two bigs plus either Livingston or Toppin at the three.
4. Wherever he plays, Livingston must play
For the longest time, Calipari said he needed to play his other McDonald’s All-American freshman more. Eventually, he came around to the (correct, in our view) idea that he specifically needed to give Livingston minutes as a small-ball power forward, not as a bruising, 6-foot-6 wing. He did a bit of both in the last two games, and Livingston has delivered. In 40 total minutes against UCLA and FAMU, he scored 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, made 3 of 4 3-pointers, and grabbed six rebounds.
In his last postgame radio show, though, Calipari swerved again, saying he no longer prefers Livingston at the four. “I think I’d rather play Adou (Thiero) at the four with Chris in the game,” he said. That would be the same Thiero who grew from a 6-foot-tall high school point guard to a 6-foot-6 (and still growing) freshman at Kentucky, where he’s played just 38 total minutes so far.
Thiero is a tantalizing long-term prospect — Calipari even declared last week, “and I’m not saying this lightly: I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but he will have a huge impact on college basketball” — but what are we doing here? Starting Ware with Tshiebwe? Still giving Toppin big minutes?
Like Wheeler, we’ve probably seen enough to declare it’s time for Toppin to take a step back. While it’s true he was about the only guy who could make a shot at Gonzaga, and he did produce a 20-and-10 game a month ago and scored 14 in the Michigan win, his senior season overall has been a disappointment. We’ve not seen the predicted leap. And the last three games have been totally underwhelming: 13 total points on 5-of-18 shooting. Calipari needs to give Livingston more of his minutes and see what the young guy becomes.
“We’re one of those teams that hasn’t figured all this stuff out yet, and you notice I tried all kinds of different combinations today, but I wanted to see them,” Calipari said after the Florida A&M game. “Combinations matter with this group. We’re going to have some good combinations.”
But when? Time for tinkering is running out.
(Top photo of Cason Wallace: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)
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