Which is the real Kentucky?

Kentucky basketball Rupp Arena 2019

This past week of Kentucky basketball was many things, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Where to begin?

By Matt Zemek

The Wildcats blew ANOTHER 14-point lead in Columbia against the South Carolina Gamecocks – yes, they have done this more than once – and suffered a humiliating loss to Frank Martin’s not-very-talented team.

Big Blue also trailed Arkansas midway through the second half, with the backcourt not making good decisions in halfcourt offense and John Calipari being thrown out of the game… and then surged after Cal’s ejection.

Assistant coach Tony Barbee threw a zone at Arkansas which flummoxed the Razorbacks down the stretch. Nick Richards did his late-game-rebounding-and-defense thing, akin to the Louisville win, and Kentucky realized it could respond to significant in-game adversity on the road.

Two games, two entirely different reactions to two sharply contrasting situations, two opposite results.

Kentucky suffered a come-from-ahead loss and pulled off a come-from-behind victory. It lost with Calipari on the bench for the final eight minutes and won with Cal tossed out of the game for the final eight minutes.

Immanuel Quickley
Immanuel Quickley
Is it great that Kentucky regrouped in Fayetteville and didn’t allow this season to snowball in the wrong way? Absolutely. Yet, we can just as clearly acknowledge that the Wildcats are inconsistent. It is their middle name at this point. The good news is that Calipari has time to bring everything together – championships are not won in mid-January – but the bad news is that players who should be stronger, more reliable anchors for this team aren’t delivering that kind of leadership.

I’m thinking of Ashton Hagans in particular. His floor game was one of the main things which held last season’s Kentucky team together, but he was all over the place the past week. Making the grade in one season generally means that a proven player can establish the same standard the next season, but there are no guarantees. Everything has to be earned; nothing is automatically given or conceded.

Hagans regaining the lucid crispness of last season is a central need for Kentucky right now. That particular area of development can ensure that when we ask, “Which is the real Kentucky?”, the better iteration will emerge on a more consistent basis, especially when we get to March.

Let’s look at Kentucky within the wider realm of college basketball this season. We can see that there is no great team in the sport. College basketball’s race to the Final Four seems to be as up in the air in mid-January as it has ever been. Why is this the case?

One of the things I see when I follow various teams across the country is that one or two players can generally be relied upon every night, but hardly any team has three players who are always there. When considering last year’s Duke team, for instance, if Zion Williamson didn’t dazzle (it was very rare that he didn’t, but he did get injured), you knew that R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish would pick up the slack.

Where are those teams this season? They don’t generally exist, with one or two possible exceptions. When you look at the entire Big Ten Conference, for instance, only seven games in the league had been won by road teams entering Sunday, January 19. Seven… and four of those games involved Nebraska and Northwestern, the two worst teams in the league, losing, so in a sense, only three “good” or “decent” Big Ten teams have lost home games at this midway point of the season.

How can a dynamic like that emerge? When road teams don’t have reliable players who are always contributing, always performing up to a certain standard.

Kentucky needs to develop that roster-wide reliability in road games. The Arkansas game was a forward step, but the product is far from finished.

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