Loss to Kansas reveals young Kentucky team is searching for a star

CHICAGO -- The national preseason hype centered on Duke's Marvin Bagley III and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr., a pair of freshmen who will fight for the No. 1 spot in next summer's NBA draft.

DeAndre Ayton's arrival at Arizona made Sean Miller's first trip to the Final Four seem possible and perhaps likely come April. Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges had returned to torch the field anew. Kansas and Villanova entered the season stacked with the talent to reach the last weekend again.

But where was the perennial, they-could-win-it-all buzz for the Kentucky Wildcats?

John Calipari had assembled another flock of five-stars -- per the norm -- but Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington hadn't been welcomed by the masses with the adoration that typically accompanies Kentucky freshman classes.

Tuesday's Champions Classic offered the Wildcats a chance to prove they can dance with the best, even though they lack showstoppers like De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, last season's phone-a-friend heroes who always seemed to bail the squad out.

Instead, the Wildcats emerged as a young team with potential but no proven catalyst. No John Wall or Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker. No give-him-the-ball-and-we're-good player they could find in a tight game.

Kentucky's 65-61 loss to Kansas featured a 3-for-13 effort from the 3-point line, a 12-for-18 clip from the free throw line and 18 turnovers.

This is probably not the 2012-13 Kentucky team that stumbled into the NIT and lost in the first round. But keep dreaming if you think this is anything close to the 2014-15 team that won 38 of 39 games.

Kentucky might navigate the season like the turbulent 2013-14 squad that had a roller-coaster experience and still managed to reach the Final Four. But that's far from a certainty.

The Wildcats looked lost throughout Tuesday's game.

Kentucky will stay tight with most opponents this season because of its size. Few teams can handle a backcourt with 6-foot-5 Hamidou Diallo and 6-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And the big men all play with fire and above the rim. Six players on the roster stand 6-9 or taller.

It's not clear what plays the Wildcats ran, however, or which defensive principles they applied Tuesday because the bulk of the game they just flew around the court and at the rim and across the floor, willing themselves into points through sloppy shooting and limited execution.

Down 51-47 late in the game, Kentucky was shooting 3-for-11 from the 3-point line. The Wildcats, always fierce in the paint, had snatched only six of a possible 23 offensive rebounds (26 percent) at that point.

Yet the Wildcats also had managed to defend and throw enough of their length at the Jayhawks to prompt a 3-for-13 start for Devonte' Graham, a 6-for-14 start for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 3-for-13 start for Malik Newman.

A Kansas backcourt widely regarded as one of America's best couldn't score against the athletic, lengthy Wildcats.

Even if the Wildcats fail to find a go-to scorer or a better offensive game plan than one-dribble isolation plays, they'll give any opponent hell with their size on defense. And perhaps that's their greatest asset, maybe the only strength that will help them compete for the SEC title and more once the postseason arrives.

In the final seconds, Knox drove to the right side of the rim and threw up an errant floater that his teammates grabbed. But Kentucky couldn't score on the putback.

And that was the tale of the game -- and maybe of the entire 2017-18 season for Kentucky.

The Wildcats possess future NBA draft picks. Their roster is full of kids who had offers from every major program in the country. But that alone won't help Kentucky thrive in SEC play and stay alive in March.

The Wildcats needed a hero against the experienced Jayhawks on Tuesday. And most years, Kentucky has one. Or three.

Tuesday's loss proved, however, the Wildcats might be searching all season for someone to save them.