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Big Blue Question Mark

Within the past week, Kentucky has beaten a top-10 opponent on the road and nearly lost to the worst team in the SEC at home. Are the Wildcats a Final Four threat? Or an inconsistent group destined to flop?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kentucky used a 21-2 run to erase a 17-point deficit in a span of fewer than six minutes during the second half of last Saturday’s 83-76 win at then-no. 7 West Virginia. Kevin Knox played out of his mind, scoring 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting (including 5-of-8 from the 3-point line). Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt provided a ton of energy off the bench, and college basketball’s youngest team displayed a remarkable amount of poise in a wild road environment that felt destined to swallow it alive in the first half.

Three days later, Kentucky followed up its biggest victory of the season by requiring a 14-point second-half comeback, overtime, and a ridiculous amount of dumb luck to beat the worst team in the SEC at home. This time, Knox was just OK (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting), Gabriel and Hamidou Diallo were awful, and Vanderbilt barely played. (Maybe because his last name was also the name of the school that Kentucky was facing and it would have been too confusing for John Calipari to make sense of it all). Meanwhile, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who recorded just six points to go with four turnovers at West Virginia, dropped 30 in Kentucky’s 83-81 win and looked every bit like a future NBA lottery pick.

One week after falling out of the AP top 25 for the first time in almost four years, the Wildcats now sit at 17-5 on the season, are tied with Florida and Tennessee for second place in the SEC standings, and have the ninth-best Vegas odds to win the national championship. And that brings me to a simple question that has anything but a simple answer: Is this Kentucky team good?

Let’s start with what we know. The two things that have remained constants for the Wildcats this season are that they’re very long and very athletic. This was made immediately clear during the team’s 65-61 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic in November when the shorter Jayhawks guards struggled to create offense because Kentucky’s physical attributes were so overwhelming. Gilgeous-Alexander is a 6-foot-6 guard and Knox is a 6-foot-9 small forward; both are at least two inches taller than virtually every opponent they match up against. Plus, the rest of Kentucky’s nine-man rotation only has one player (Quade Green) shorter than 6-foot-5. That same rotation also boasts seven guys with wingspans of at least 7 feet and eight players with vertical jumps of at least 35 inches. If you lack the appropriate frame of reference to decipher what those numbers mean, let me assure you that they’re absolutely ridiculous. I’d be inclined to say Kentucky has the physical profile of an NBA team, but the truth is that plenty of NBA teams would love the size and athleticism these Cats have.

The problem, as the Monstars learned the hard way in their classic loss to the Tune Squad, is that no basketball team has ever been awarded extra points for being tall or able to jump high. For as great as Kentucky is in those two regards, the Wildcats are inconsistent at pretty much everything else. Gilgeous-Alexander is the only Wildcats player shooting better than 40 percent from the 3-point line, and he’s only taken 28 attempts from deep on the season. Kentucky averages 13.9 assists per game (tied for 169th in Division I) and 14 turnovers per game (tied for 231st). This group can’t shoot, pass, or dribble, and it’s prone to inexcusable defensive lapses. If you charted the statistics of any Kentucky player, the result would invariably look like a sine wave.

After Kentucky stole a win from Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, ESPN’s Laura Rutledge asked Calipari how he plans to get his guys to be more consistent with their approach. Cal’s response: “I’m hoping before the year is out that we can land this plane and there’s some runway left.”

So why should anyone remain optimistic about Kentucky? Why should we give the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt when any other program this inconsistent would be cast aside and forgotten? The primary reason is that Kentucky has two projected lottery picks (Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander) and another player (Diallo) who could play his way into the lottery. In a sport in which every team has obvious flaws, sometimes individual (if unrefined) talent can be enough to win. More importantly, though, it’s impossible to give up on this Kentucky team because its story to this point is one that we’ve seen before. And the last time this story unfolded, it concluded with an unexpected happy ending.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Part of what makes evaluating Kentucky teams so difficult is that historical parallels rarely exist. When a team like 2017-18 Arizona State—a crew that loves to play fast almost as much as it hates to play defense—comes roaring out of the gate, we can point to last year’s version of UCLA or some of the recent Iowa State teams and reasonably approximate that the Sun Devils’ NCAA tournament ceiling is the Sweet 16. But rosters loaded with freshmen who are both immensely gifted and totally unproven have hardly ever come along throughout history. In fact, outside of the Fab Five in the early 1990s, virtually every instance of this kind of team has come out of Durham in the last five years or Lexington in the last eight. Thus, the only way to make sense of the Kentucky or Duke teams in the one-and-done era is to compare them to other Kentucky or Duke teams from the one-and-done era.

This limited sample size can be misleading. It’s why Duke fans are holding out hope that this version of the Blue Devils can flip the same defensive switch that the 2014-15 national champions did, while Kentucky fans are clinging to dream that these Cats can achieve similar March results as the 2013-14 squad that went to the Final Four. After all, fans derive their expectations from a blend of optimism, reality, and precedence. Optimism tells Kentucky fans that a team with this much raw talent is good enough to win a national title, while reality suggests that the Cats are too young and inconsistent to string together six straight tourney wins. Then precedence swoops in and reminds Big Blue Nation that a very young and inconsistent Kentucky team made the Final Four as a no. 8 seed merely four years ago. Maybe the destiny of the 2017-18 Cats is the same as that 2013-14 group.

This isn’t an entirely outrageous thought, by the way. Sure, the odds aren’t great that two separate groups of freshmen from the same school will follow identical trajectories a handful of years apart. But the similarities are there. Much like this season’s Kentucky team, the 2013-14 iteration featured a rotation made up of exclusively freshmen and sophomores, produced three future first-round NBA draft picks (Julius Randle, James Young, and Willie Cauley-Stein), logged more turnovers than assists on the season, lacked a knockdown 3-point shooter, and dealt with point guard frustrations. And for what it’s worth, that team also lost the third game of the season in the United Center by four points to a top-five opponent, pulled off a top-10 nonconference upset, lost two of its first four SEC road games, and was 17-5 in the first week of February. (That team also played home games in Rupp Arena, wore blue jerseys on the road, and was coached by Calipari. WHOA.)

Of course, if we’re going to make the comparison between Kentucky in 2017-18 and 2013-14, we should mention that the 2013-14 Wildcats maintained a semblance of consistency on an individual level. Even though that team experienced its struggles throughout the year and there was no telling what version of Young or the Harrison twins would show up on a given night, Randle constantly played his ass off and was a double-double machine. And that’s where the 2013-14 analogy falls apart for me. Right now this Kentucky team is decidedly not good, and that will remain the case until someone provides an identity beyond just “long and athletic.”

These Wildcats can’t afford to coast into the NCAA tournament and count on everything to suddenly click into place like it did for the 2013-14 team, which lost four of seven entering a tourney in which it went on to reach the national title game. If Kentucky is to ensure that this season doesn’t fall somewhere between “Billy Gillispie” and “first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris” in the annals of Big Blue Nation history, Calipari needs to find this year’s version of Julius Randle, and he needs to find him now. Cal needs someone—most likely Knox or Gilgeous-Alexander—to dependably set the tone with defensive effort and offensive aggressiveness every night. He needs someone to confidently step into the cockpit and land this plane, because February is here and there are only five weeks of runway left.

Then again, maybe all Kentucky really needs is for its 2017-18 version of Aaron Harrison to bail it out in March by unleashing his massive balls on the world time and again. And if the Cats end up in Wichita State’s region of the bracket, forget everything I’ve said. Some parts of history are just destined to repeat themselves.