My thoughts on UK Basketball

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the University of Kentucky and all of its athletic teams. They also know how crazy I am about the men’s basketball team. Listening to Cawood Ledford with my “Pap” is what got me hooked on all things UK sports related. I started watching football and fell head over heels for the power ‘K’ helmets (why can’t we bring those back for a game or two?). I admit that I love football more than anything, but I love basketball a lot.

With all of that said, I felt like I need to give my two cents on this year’s edition of the men’s basketball team. John Calipari once again assembled an impressive collection of talent, with seven new freshmen (Jemarl Baker, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander {SGA}, Quade Green, Nick Richards and Jarred Vanderbilt), a redshirt freshman (Hami Diallo) and three sophomores (Tai Wynyard, Wenyen Gabriel and Sasha Killeya-Jones {SKJ}). With this amount of talent, plus returning contributors, many thought that UK would be in the driver’s seat in the SEC and a national power. Even after the loss to Kansas, many college basketball talking heads thought Kentucky had the goods to make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.

Fast forward to December 23, when Kentucky lost to a lesser UCLA team, who is now sitting at 13-5 (4th in the PAC-12) and unranked. This was the first time Kentucky was questioned as a legitimate contender. It would not be the last time. After a demolition of rival Louisville, followed by two tough SEC road wins, many thought Kentucky had found its toughness and was on the right path.

Then January 6, 2018 arrived. After leading by eight points at the half, Kentucky proceeded to get manhandled and outworked in a 76-65 loss at Thompson-Boling Arena. Kentucky then stole a one point win at Rupp Arena (thanks Doug Shows) and beat Vanderbilt at the weirdest arena in college basketball. As the game in Columbia, South Carolina played out, Kentucky looked pretty good, holding a lead as large as 14 points.

However, just like in Knoxville, Kentucky was manhandled by a tougher, grittier Gamecock squad. In both the Tennessee and South Carolina games, the officiating was questionable, but good teams can not blame losses solely on the referees. I think that Kentucky has a bigger problem than officiating. Kentucky is a very talented team, but does not have the correct parts be a great “team”. Because of this, I do not believe that Kentucky will make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

While we have two good point guards in Green and SGA, neither are knock down, dead-eye shooters. Both have a decent stroke from behind the three point arc, but can not make the three pointer consistently enough to make teams play them honestly. Wenyen Gabriel and PJ Washington are spotty shooters, who can hit when set, but can not take three point shots off the dribble. Kevin Knox is the one player on the team who could go on a three point shooting rampage, but has yet to do so this season.

What coach Calipari has assembled is a great group of forwards and centers, with a couple of light shooting point guards. The injury of Jamarl Baker put Coach Cal in a bind. Baker was the only real shooter Cal had recruited and his absence is being felt. Brad Calipari is rumored to be a dead-eye shooter, but seems reluctant to shoot when he is put in the game. Without a true deep threat, teams do not have to guard a threat that doesn’t exist.

Now, the one factor that has not been discussed is the absence of Jarred Vanderbilt, who sat out until the South Carolina game with a left foot injury. When Vanderbilt was inserted, he brought instant energy and hustle. This has been lacking, off and on, all season. Vanderbilt’s contributions may we’ll be the salve to heal the wounds Kentucky currently possesses. That is except for one: Hami Diallo.

For a young man who is an absolutely freakish physical specimen, Diallo’s attitude makes him the least valuable player on the team. Multiple times this season, Diallo has been seen sulking after a call or play did not go his way. He has also been seen “chirping” at Coach Cal on the sidelines. Coach Calipari even mentioned that in his press conference:

“There is the unwarranted arrogance of a typical team that thinks they’re better than they are…”

This remark was, in my opinion, aimed directly at Diallo.

If Coach Cal can not instill into this group the mental toughness and fortitude that is necessary to perform at the highest levels of college basketball, this team will lose several more games this season. The Wildcats still have huge games left, starting Saturday against Florida at Rupp Arena. They also have tough road games at West Virginia, at Texas A&M and at Auburn. All of those could be blowout losses, if the Wildcats continue to play the way they have against teams like Tennessee and South Carolina.

When ESPN’s College Gameday rolls onto campus Saturday, the Wildcats will face the Florida Gators. I will be rooting for the Wildcats, just as I always will. We will see how this team fares in the atmosphere that College Gameday brings. I hope that they will respond and dominate, but there’s a chance that they won’t. Either way, I only have one thing to say: GO BIG BLUE!

As always, follow UK Fans All Day on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for all of your UK Sports news!

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