It may be the New Year for most of the world, but it’s the Mid-Year for the college basketball world. So where is Kentucky as it heads into the conference part of its season?
John Calipari had said, before the Louisville game, that he’d be happy when it was over. Well, it’s over.
And now begins what, with apologies to Christmas, is probably Calipari’s most wonderful time of the year. Cal doesn’t design his season around late-December games. His focus is always on getting his team ready for the NCAA tournament. Now he has the entire SEC conference season to work on his players, iron out the wrinkles and find the right combinations.
The SEC is usually a fairly low-impact couple of months for Kentucky. There are always teams that challenge the Wildcats – Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas in the past, this year perhaps Texas A&M, Auburn and South Carolina – but mostly it’s a tune-up for the NCAA tournament.
If Kentucky stumbles too much in the conference, of course, it bodes poorly for the tournament. But even a couple of Cal’s teams that did struggle in the conference ended up in the Final Four.
This team shouldn’t struggle. Just as Malik Monk won’t go for 47 every night, neither will he clank it at 6-for-17 every night. And elsewhere, a team with De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adabayo and Isaiah Briscoe should be able to hold its own against SEC competition.
But the team we’re looking at right now – the team that outlasted North Carolina and was outlasted by Louisville – is not the team that will enter the NCAA tournament in mid-March. If Cal uses the next 11 weeks wisely, the March version of Kentucky should have ironed out a lot of its wrinkles.
Wrinkle No. 1: They have to get the ball to Bam on the inside. And Bam will be dominating. I don’t mean the foolish lobs and forced, telescoped throw-ins, just so they can say they’re following coach’s orders. I mean set plays that end with Bam in some form of shooting position comfortable to him.
A team that can drive to the basket, like Fox, Briscoe and Monk can, should be able to open up opportunities for their big man. Louisville did. Other teams who play Kentucky with big men far inferior to Adabayo seem able to find shots for them.
When Bam does get the ball, he’s been effective. He’s strong enough to grab his space, agile enough to work for position, which often results in thunderous throw-downs. But he’s probably been averaging less than 10 shots a game, which hardly anyone notices when Monk’s on a tear, or when Kentucky is killing the other team in transition. But when they’re forced to play a half-court game, and Monk is not on a tear, the Wildcats have to utilize their big man’s brute force much better than they have so far this season.
Wrinkle No. 2: Get the freshmen playing less like freshmen. That means relying on one another, not trying to do it all themselves, and slowing down the game. That comes with practicing and playing.
It doesn’t diminish their wonderful individual skills. In fact, it enhances them. And I don’t think the problem is putting a brake on their egos. I think it’s putting a break on their bad habits. It’s been Cal’s challenge every year, taking a bunch of one-on-one all-stars and creating a team concept. He usually accomplishes it.
Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Aaron Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, to name just a handful of Kentucky freshmen, were all much better in the spring than in the winter. (Freshmen like John Wall, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis and Julius Randle were who they were pretty much from Big Blue Madness on.) And this team has a multitude of freshman talent equal to any of Cal’s previous editions, and better than most.
Wrinkle No. 3: Hit your free throws. The solution, of course, is the same as getting to Carnegie Hall. Practice. But there are a couple of other things: poise and conditioning.
The blare of a place like the Yum! Center down the stretch of a close game is intense. It makes young players think too much. The more they play, the less it preys on their mind. And, after 35 minutes of play, tired free-throw shooters tend to be less dependable. Freshmen generally aren’t used to the intensity of the college season.
These are not bad free-throw shooters. Bam had come a long way since the time Cal chose him to take two technical free throws against Stephen F. Austin. (He missed both.) He was making his shots before the Louisville game. One has to think technique is not his problem.
Technique is certainly not Fox’s problem. Early in the season, as he stepped up and calmly swished one free throw after another, I wondered if he might ever miss. I’m not sure what happened. He has suddenly become undependable. It seems fixable and doesn’t appear to be Kentucky’s biggest problem.
Wrinkle No. 4: Willis and Wenyan and Mulder, oh my!
It’s not all on the Number Four position. Briscoe has been spotty after a strong start. Young sophomore Isaac Humphries and young freshman Sasha Killeya-Jones are just not delivering the heft in the middle that Calipari was counting on. This team has been exposed as not as deep as the 38-1 team of 2014-15 (neither, of course, are the Celtics) and not sufficiently bulky underneath.
Fans who looked at Bam and savored the prospect of regaining the muscle in the middle have been disappointed by getting outmanned by almost everybody once again and too often losing the rebounding battles.
But Kentucky ought to be getting more out of the four than it’s getting. All right, we know! Derek Willis struggles on defense. But he’s an outstanding athlete who ought to be contributing more to the offense than the occasional shot from the corner when Fox gets him the ball. He has shown he can run the break and drive to the basket. He’s been a good rebounder and shot-blocker, too. Too often, though, he stands and waits.
Gabriel is a different story. He’s boundless energy when he’s on the court, smiling where Willis is dour. He’s all over the place, where Willis tends to position himself and wait for the ball. And he plays an aggressive – if often foolish – defense
But Gabriel has a frail body, pushed out of the way when he tries to establish himself for a rebound, called for fouls when he soars for the ball.
And Mulder has demonstrated the same outside shooting potential as Willis, plus a willingness to play aggressively and mix it up. He also has one of the team’s better vertical leaps. But he’s another defensive liability.
My guess is that the athletic freshman Gabriel has a better upside than the seniors Willis and Mulder. But a hot-shooting Willis remains the key to another Final Four. Calipari’s challenge is to find a way to maximize the strengths of each while minimizing their shortcomings.
The problem is, with this team’s commitment to a three-guard offense, there isn’t much margin for an unproductive front line. I think Calipari has toyed with the idea of pairing Humphreys and Adabayo, sacrificing the stretch four for a power four. But so far, he doesn’t seem to like what he’s seen.
This is all middle-of-the-season conjecture, of course. We’re likely to be having an entirely different conversation three months from now.
One thing we do know: It’s clear now that Monk won’t go for 47 a night. At least that’s off the table. What’s Plan B?
The Wildcats take on Ole Miss on the road Thursday at 8 p.m. (ESPN2).