Kentucky’s basketball fortunes have bobbed up and down this past month as if on the end of a bungee cord.
The Wildcats came into the season ranked by most as the No. 1 team in the country, based on the assessment that Kentucky had another new collection of wonderful individual talent. Maybe better than ever.
Another powerful John Calipari recruiting season had snared the nation’s sixth, seventh, 10th, 16th and 26th highest-ranked high school seniors in the nation. It was the top-rated recruiting class, and that translated into the top-rated college team.
And the Cats didn’t disappoint early, riding roughshod over their first seven opponents, including a 21-point dismissal of always-powerful Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.
Then UCLA came into Rupp Arena on Dec. 3. The Wildcats scored 92 points and lost by just five, but down down down went the bungee. The No. 1 rating plummeted overnight to sixth or seventh.
The freshmen were inconsistent. The Cats weren’t, in fact, Cal’s vision of a premier defensive team. They were getting out-rebounded by everybody. Cal repeatedly accused certain players of being hesitant, lacking confidence, dragging the team down with their uncertainty and timidity. He even used words like “fear” and “afraid.”
Everyone pointed out how Malik Monk was streaky, Isaiah Briscoe was still not a good shooter, De’Aaron Fox was often out of control, Bam Adebayo had failed to dominate a game. Nobody knew how to box out, or keep from fouling, or take away the threes from the corner, or help out on defense.
How does this team manage even to lace up its sneakers properly and find the right door into the big bad gymnasium for every game?
Calipari kept saying – as he has said nearly every week since 2009 – that he had “a young team.” And, as all the analysts kept predicting right up to the Vegas tip-off, this young team was going to be a Christmas cookie platter for the more-experienced, savvier, bigger, better-rebounding, better-shooting, faster, quicker, bulkier, springier North Carolina Tarheels.
Some called North Carolina the best team in the country. Kentucky? No more than a work in progress, a large, young question mark.
Every sport is a bottom-line event. The overall game – any game – gets consumed by the final score, no matter how balanced or competitive. At the end of a close game, someone gets a single up the middle, or scores a touchdown on a broken play, or hits a three from the corner. And that team is a winner, the other team a loser. Kentucky fans know this [Laettner] as well as any.
So Monk hit a three from the corner. And Kentucky won a racetrack of a game by three points, a game Carolina could just as easily have won. If Carolina had won – even by a point – Kentucky would have been praised for the game it played, and everyone would have said North Carolina’s veterans came through as expected, Kentucky’s freshmen wilted as expected.
And so, who exactly is this Kentucky team as it goes into its big annual rivalry game to close out the non-conference portion of its season? Is it the team, pre-UCLA, that walloped everyone by 20 and 30 points, scoring 100 in three straight wins? Is it the team, post-UCLA, that had more holes than a golf course and would need to absorb Calipari’s tough love or go into the tournament a three or four seed?
Or is it the team, post-North Carolina, of skill, energy and a nearly limitless upside?
Yes. Yes. And Yes.
Monk alone scored nearly half of Kentucky’s points against North Carolina. Monk and Fox together scored 79 percent. That’s either a rave review of the nation’s most fabulous freshman backcourt or a serious question about the rest of the team.
It’s always dangerous to put all your hopes in the hands of a streak shooter. Nobody expects Monk to keep getting 40 points. Fox, despite his magnificent effort at both ends of the court in Las Vegas, hit just nine for 21. Briscoe took only six shots, which is all right given that’s not his value to this team. Derek Willis, Wenyen Gabriel and everyone else just sort of disappeared on offense.
Bam Adebayo fouled out and, once again, Isaac Humphries and Sacha Killeya-Jones showed themselves unready for the bright lights.
For the second straight time in a big game, Mychal Mulder sat the bench. True, the Cats scored 103 points, so it’s ingenuous to say they needed his shooting. And Cal has expressed doubts about Mulder’s defense (though he’s also expressed doubts about the defense of nearly everyone else on the team). But Mulder, though just 6-4, has shown himself to be an aggressive and savvy rebounder. He reportedly has the highest vertical leap on the team. And he’s a senior who seems to play smart when he’s out there.
Another senior, Dominique Hawkins, provides steady play at both ends, but it’s clear how the team’s production drops against good teams whenever Monk or Briscoe or Fox is off the court.
So what is this saying? That nobody knows who this Kentucky team is or how it will show up at the Yum! Center on Wednesday against the Louisville Cardinals. Rivalry games often bring out the most unexpected results. (Louisville football fans will acknowledge the truth of that.)
Cal’s Wildcats have beaten Rick’s Cardinals eight times in nine games. But Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino had beaten Kentucky five straight times, too.
And throw out the national rankings. In December 2013, Louisville was sixth in the country, Kentucky No. 18. Oops. Kentucky 73, Louisville 66.
Pitino may not have his strongest group this season, but it’s still 10-1 – same as UK – and ranked 11th in the country. Despite the Cardinals’ colors, this is no tomato can.
Plus, Pitino is about the smartest game coach in the country this side of Cameron Indoor. And it’s at home. And Kentucky just did an Ironman against North Carolina.
And Monk can’t be expected to drain another eight threes.
So I expect it to be close. I’m not predicting a UofL win. That would be folly. But bungee cords go up – and then they go down again. Which way is Kentucky heading at the moment?