Kentucky started the season at No. 2 overall for two main reasons: the strength of John Calipari's reputation, and the recruiting chops that built that rep. The Wildcats lost seven players to the NBA from last year's team, but Calipari was replacing them with the top recruiting class in the country. The assumption, a reasonable one, was that Calipari would be able to plug in another batch of one-and-done prospects and keep winning. It was easy to pencil in Kentucky for another 30+ win season and trip to the Final Four after they beat Duke in the first week of the season,
Except they haven't really played all that well since, struggling to put away mid-major teams like Illinois State and getting soundly beaten by a UCLA team that has already lost three games this season. It may seem like Calipari never misses a beat in Lexington but that isn't really the case. Kentucky lost 12 games in 2013 and made 2014's run to the Final Four as an 8 seed. Calipari's teams tend to take on the identity of their star freshman, which is fine when those freshmen are John Wall and Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. This year's group may need more time to develop than some of their predecessors.
You never want to take too much away from a young team losing on the road in November, but an excellent game-plan by UCLA coach Steve Alford exposed some of the holes on the Kentucky roster. If Kentucky is going to deliver on those expectations, they're holes that will need to be filled.
They Don't Have Much Three-Point Shooting
UCLA spent most of the game having all five players packing the paint and daring Kentucky to shoot over the top of them. The Wildcats went 8-25 (32%) on mostly wide open looks; they are ranked 317th in the country in three-point percentage at 28.5%. Freshman Jamal Murray is the only one of their starters knocking down perimeter shots and none of their top four big men have shown they can stretch the floor, which allows opposing big men to hang out by the rim and clog up driving lanes.
Marcus Lee, being big but not in the grand scheme of things THAT big. — Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
They Don't Have A Lot Of Beef Upfront
Skal Labissiere was supposed to be next in a long line of great Kentucky centers, and he still may be. Right now, though, he isn't nearly as physically developed as his predecessors were. He has a very narrow build (6-foot-11, 225 pounds) and lacks the lower body strength of Towns and DeMarcus Cousins or the uber-athleticism of Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis. Thomas Welch (7 foot, 245 pounds) and Tony Parker (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) combined for 32 points and 14 rebounds in UCLA's win and controlled the paint on both sides of the ball.
Maybe that changes if Marcus Lee hadn't been knocked out of that game with a head injury after only four minutes. But then Lee's not exactly built like an Adonis either at 6-foot-9, 220 pounds. Kentucky has traditionally been able to dominate teams in the post, controlling tempo and creating easy shots for their guards, but that's just not happening this season—Skal gets pushed out of the paint easily and none of their other three big men (Marcus Lee, Isaac Humphries and Alex Poythress) have a very developed back-to-the-basket game.
They Aren't As Athletic As They Have Been
The best Calipari teams at Kentucky blow other teams off the floor with pure athleticism, whether it's John Wall and Eric Bledsoe on the perimeter or Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones or Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein upfront. Jamal Murray (6-foot-5, 207 pounds) and Isaiah Briscoe (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) are both five-star recruits, but neither is an above-the-rim player, and they don't have the type of size to overwhelm opposing teams on the perimeter, either.
Put it all together—big men who lack elite size and guards who lack elite speed—and this year's Kentucky team can't overwhelm opposing teams physically, and don't have the same intimidation factor as previous teams. Take that away and it's an inexperienced group with only one senior and a number of flaws that can be exploited by good teams.
"Jamal! I'm going to need you to do a bunch of really difficult things, okay?" — Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
None of this is to say Kentucky is bad. They're not, and they are likely to face just two significant tests in non-conference play, home dates against Arizona State and archrival Louisville. When they get into SEC play, though, some of the older and more experienced teams in the conference are likely to give them a real challenge. It's entirely too easy to imagine Vanderbilt's massive junior center Damian Jones pushing around Kentucky's frontcourt, Texas A&M's Danuel House bombing over Kentucky's defenders, or LSU's Ben Simmons doing all manner of vicious Ben Simmons things to them. A conference championship that has felt like their birthright in recent years seems notably less so at this moment.
There's a reason that NBA scouts have bemoaned the lack of high-level talent at the top of this year's freshman class (other than Simmons) for awhile. Labissiere might be the best freshman big man in the country and Jamal Murray might be the best freshman guard, but that doesn't mean as much as it would in most years. Both have a chance to be high-level NBA players, but if they do it will be the result of skill development, not overwhelming physical tools. That developmental process is still happening.
In other words, there could be a lot more nights this season where Kentucky's inexperience shines through and they play like they did at UCLA. This could translate into a lot more losses than Big Blue Nation is used to seeing.