The Kentucky basketball team has lost to the only two major-conference teams it has played this season (Duke and Seton Hall, if you still count the Big East), and it has looked something short of Ashley Judd standards in a few others.
Some are even saying the preseason No. 2 Wildcats don’t belong in the rankings at all, but instead should be cast off amongst the unwashed.
And that may be true for now, but I’m here to tell you Kentucky’s problems are minor and won’t last.
Kentucky is getting killed at the arc because its best shooters have begun the season in a slump, and it guards the opposing 3-point line with the enthusiasm of a kid opening a pair of socks for Christmas.
It starts with Tyler Herro, a freshman swingman everyone knows to be a great shooter. That was the big thing on all his scouting profiles in high school, and all you have to do is watch the guy play for five minutes to know he’s a good 3-point shooter. The shot looks smooth and easy, and for the most part he shoots it on balance and in rhythm.
It should be going in, it just isn’t (but it will be).
In the two losses, Herro is 1-for-12 from the 3-point line. He leads the team in attempts, with almost half his shots coming from deep. But for the season he’s shooting 27 percent. As a team, Kentucky is shooting 34 percent and making 5.6 3s per game while giving up 9.1 on 40 percent shooting.
Here’s a prediction: Sometime within the next three weeks, Herro gets hot. Shoots 13-for-22 over three games or something like that. Then, as if by magic, the rest of the team gets hot too, and they become the team that Cal and Bilas expected all along.
We must always remember that these players are teenagers, and emotional.
Well, naturally, at that point the defense picks up because you always play better defense when the ball is going in on your end, as part of a tweak in the human condition designed specifically to punish and torment Bill Self.
And then Cal is going to coach these guys up. Right now he’s hitting them with some reverse psychology. All preseason and for the first month of this year he’d been going on about defense being the thing that will determine the Wildcats’ goodness, but now he’s talking about how the offense is the problem.
“If you fought and you defend like we did in the first half, our team is going to be fine,” Calipari said before straying from what had become a familiar script. “We missed a lot of shots that we just can’t afford to miss. . . . I have a lot to figure out offensively. We played such great defense . . . . We couldn’t get baskets. . . . With the way, we played defensively, we should have been up a good number.”
Cal is one of the true experts when it comes to that sort of thing, and the Seton Hall game shouldn’t be considered an example of bad defense by Kentucky — it was a classic college basketball game there’s no real shame in losing. Still, Cal hasn’t yet figured out a way to get this particular group to do much disrupting on defense. It’s not just the shooting. The Wildcats average just 5.8 steals per game, which ranks 245th, nationally.
So if you’re not aggressively guarding the ball and playing the passing lanes, but you’re also allowing 40 percent 3-point shooting, what exactly are you doing on defense? You aren’t taking risks, but you aren’t being careful either. You are bending, but also breaking.
Other than that, though, Kentucky is pretty dang good. It’s the best rebounding team in the country, getting back almost half its own misses. So you can’t say the Wildcats don’t play hard. And as they customarily are, the Wildcats are good in transition and good in the paint on both ends. They shoot 48 percent from the field, they block 5.4 shots per game (22nd, nationally), and they average 14 assists, which is about average. As a bonus, they’re shooting 76 percent from the foul line, indicating a team that should be shooting it better from the outside.
The Duke game got everybody spooked, and it’s magnifying everything that’s happened to Kentucky since.
But this isn’t a broken team. It’s just a young one. Not everybody can be Zion Williamson.