Big Blue Nation is at a crossroads. As it sits now, Kentucky is 17-8, having suffered a 30-point loss to a conference rival, losing arguably the best player in college basketball, with no real quality wins on its résumé and staring from the outside looking in at this year’s NCAA tournament.
Theblowout loss to Tennessee was not that surprising. In fact, I tweeted earlier that day that the Wildcats were going to struggle and UT's home-court advantage was going to be a factor. I did not think, however, that they would get blown out like they did. Kentucky trailed by 39 late and it was as bad a loss by a defending national champion as I can ever remember.
The loss of big man Nerlens Noel unquestionably hurts the Wildcats. With him on the floor, opposing teams shot 40 percent on 2-point field goals. Without him? Sixty percent. He was only the fifth freshman in the past 40 years to average over 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks per game. Two others on that list: Ralph Sampson and Anthony Davis. That’s not a talent you can just replace.
Noel covered up a lot of the flaws this team has because of his shot-blocking ability. Teams could penetrate the lane or dish it down to the low block and Noel would be the safety net and alter most of those shots. Unfortunately, coach John Calipari cannot wave a magic wand and get him back. They have to figure out some other way to defend.
From my perspective, it is beginning to look like a situation that was set up to fail from the beginning. The one-and-done angle is way past overkill at this point when talking about this team. I’m not going to go there. But I do think this group had its growth stunted early in the season. The ESPN "All Access" shows in the preseason undeniably caught the interest of future recruits, but they also put this group of players in a tough spot.
Guys who had never played a minute of major college basketball were donning the national championship jerseys from the preceding year. They were ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll, even receiving some first-place votes. The lights were exceptionally bright for these kids and they had never set foot inside of Rupp Arena for an actual game.
Calipari is going to get a lot of criticism for how this team has played, some of it fair, most of it not. I think John is an underrated coach. Last year’s Wildcats were one of my absolute favorite teams to watch in the 33 years I’ve been around college basketball. That team was special.
Point guard play has been the Achilles heel of this group so far. Ryan Harrow is not the right fit for this team. He was not highly rated out of high school and folks in Raleigh did not seem too disappointed when he decided to transfer from NC State. He’s a scoring point guard with defensive flaws, the opposite of Marquis Teague.
I recruited Cal’s other option, Archie Goodwin, as well as Alex Poythress when they were sophomores in high school. Both of these kids are splendid athletes. Goodwin has the talent to be a special college basketball player, having shown flashes of his ability already. But he’s a kid who needs time to figure things out.
Poythress is sort of similar, having grown up and played in tiny Clarksville, Tenn. He has struggled a little bit to find his true position. Right now I think he’s a power forward, but lacks some of the physical attributes to allow him to be successful there. His skill set is not polished enough to handle the small forward position, and who does he guard? That’s been a challenge for him. He simply needs some time to develop his feel for the game.
Some, probably most, are going to write this team off -- if they already haven’t. Personally, I think the Wildcats finish 2-4 the rest of the way and move out of NCAA tournament contention all together, especially if Georgia can play the way that it did against Ole Miss on the road. Realistically, Vandy and Mississippi State are the only games the Wildcats should win the rest of the regular season.
Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe UK will surprise us. This will be Coach Cal’s biggest challenge since arriving at Kentucky and so far he has risen to the occasion every other time he’s faced adversity in Lexington. There is reason to believe that he can do it again.
It starts with the Wildcats reinventing themselves. This team was not winning big with Noel, and they are certainly not any better without him. But Willie Cauley-Stein is a developing prospect, who like the other guys that I’ve mentioned, will continue to improve. That has to be the theme: keep getting better. If they do that, they still have a chance to accomplish something that last season’s team didn’t: win the SEC tournament.
If these Cats can focus on improving and get themselves ready for the league tourney, they have a chance at making a run. The conference is wide open this year with the exception of Florida. If they can somehow get past or elude the Gators, they can earn that automatic berth. I’ve seen Nashville turn into Lexington South before, as UK's rabid fans turn that town blue.
With those fans in the house, the Wildcats will have a chance. But ultimately it'll be up to the players to rally from this past Saturday's embarrassment. The talent is still there. Will it deliver?
Stay tuned, Big Blue Nation.