Oscar Tshiebwe is a rebounding machine, but can his teammates deliver in his absence? Photo Credit Dr. Michael Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – After eight games, everybody wants to know if this Kentucky basketball team is any good. Unfortunately, nobody knows the answer to that question right now. Not Jay Bilas, not Jerry Tipton, not even Coach John Calipari…and certainly not me.
The reality is that we really don’t know any more about this team than when the season started. Injuries, illnesses, and a schedule full of Poop States have clouded our ability to properly predict and prognosticate.
Let’s start with the things we do know.
The one thing we’re sure of is that Oscar Tshiebwe is a force down low. When he’s out of the game, however, Kentucky appears downright fraudulent. At least that’s what Coach Cal calls a team with no post presence. If (or should we say when) Oscar—who’s averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds a game—gets into foul trouble, the Wildcats’ post presence becomes missing in action. Can Keion Brooks, Jr., Daimion Collins, Jacob Toppin, Lance Ware, or even Bryce Hopkins provide enough of a low-post presence by committee to weather the storm of over-the-back, ticky-tack fouls that will surely banish Oscar to the bench?
The answer is: We just don’t know. The revolving door of bottom-feeder opponents just hasn’t provided a stern enough of a test. Six of the seven “tune-up” games have been against teams with losing records, mired in the 300s of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Kentucky’s strength of schedule is No. 354 out of 358 Division I teams. The Wildcats’ average margin of victory has been over 25 points per game. You can’t really learn much about your team playing patsies like that.
We do know that Collins could use an extra twenty pounds, Toppin has been floppin’ with a bum shoulder, and Ware has been hobbled with a bad ankle. At 6’6 and 220 pounds, Hopkins has the bulk, but not the length needed for a prolonged SEC battle. Brooks—once regarded as a steadying force in the frontcourt—has been frustratingly inconsistent to say the least.
This Kentucky team’s strengths are in the backcourt. But once again, we don’t know much more about the guards than when the season started. Sahvir Wheeler—as someone who can beat his man easily off the dribble—has been a breath of fresh air, leading the nation at 8.4 assists per game. However, just like in his previous stint at Georgia, turnovers have been a bugaboo.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Wheeler and his backcourt mate, TyTy Washington, have been able to share the ball. The two can play together, which bodes well for the slate of challenging upcoming games. Washington, who never saw a shot he didn’t like, has been a steady contributor on the offensive end of the court. He may be the “go to” player when Kentucky needs that critical basket.
At the beginning of the season, pundits predicted this team would be a good three-point shooting team. That has been only partially true. Make no mistake, guys like Davion Mintz and Kellan Grady have shown they can fill it up from behind the arc, but Kentucky as a team is only hitting .327 from the three-point line. That’s worse than the last four Calipari teams. Projected sniper Dontaie Allen is only 3 of 21 from long range in his last four contests. There’s plenty of work to be done as Calipari shortens up the rotation. Can the team get Grady more shots? Will Calipari consider playing four guards? Is Shaedon Sharpe the savior in waiting?
The next three games may supply us some answers. Notre Dame hasn’t exactly set the world on fire losing their last three in a row, but a trip into enemy territory is always revealing. The Irish return a veteran team that matches Kentucky in both age and experience. Who will embrace and who will wilt under the pressure of the rabid Joyce Center crowd?
A No. 21-ranked Ohio State in Las Vegas will be another stiff test. The Buckeyes are coming off a big upset win over Duke. These are the neutral site games that Calipari loves to schedule. The Wildcats might still be favored, but a win against another contender should instill confidence and bolster excitement.
Of course, the annual Armageddon matchup with Louisville looms next. Win that one and the answer to the question we led off with at the beginning of the column becomes a bit clearer. A 10 – 1 Kentucky team should undoubtedly make everyone breathe easier heading into the conference grind.
Are the Cats any good?
The bottom line is that thus far, this Kentucky basketball team has played badly enough to make me doubt. But they’ve also played well enough in stretches to give me hope.
Let’s all choose hope for now. We’ll have our final answer soon enough.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He is the author of three books, CUT TO THE CHASE, KENTUCKY PASSION, and FROM THE RAFTERS OF RUPP. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.