The machine at Kentucky has a faulty engine and a few leaky parts.
The ninth-ranked Wildcats traveled to LSU on Tuesday night and looked, to be generous, average. The Tigers won easily, 85-67, and they're now 9-5 with two straight quality wins. The story, you'd think, would be a talented group led by sensational freshman Ben Simmons starting to figure things out and redeem themselves after an uninspired nonconference run.
But Tuesday was more about Kentucky looking flat, disjointed and just plain confused. The ugly truth is this is one of John Calipari's least-talented teams.
Calipari has a really good backcourt in Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray; Isaiah Briscoe is a solid glue guy, and Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress bring energy and athleticism up front. So there are nice pieces. They just don't exactly fit together.
A lot of attention will be paid to how much of a flop freshman big man Skal Labissiere has been. Labissiere, who entered this season expected to be the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, is now coming off the bench and basically used to, hopefully, eat up minutes.
Labissiere's line in this game—three points on 1-of-3 shooting, two rebounds and a turnover—was about as insignificant as his play. He got pushed around on both ends, and he lacked confidence and awareness on the floor, which isn't exactly a new development.
What was expected of Labissiere was that he would be similar to what Karl-Anthony Towns was a season ago: an uber-skilled big man who can score from the blocks and step away from the bucket to make mid-range jumpers in addition to providing rim protection on the defensive end. Instead, the best he's been able to offer is a few flashes against subpar competition.
In seven games against major-conference teams, Labissiere is averaging 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds and shooting 36.7 percent from the field.
It's not exactly fair to bury a college freshman who simply isn't ready for the show, and if Calipari had another big man to do what the Wildcats thought they'd get out of Labissiere, then the 6'11" forward would maybe be able to settle into a role more fitting for where he is. Instead, he looks overwhelmed by expectations, and it has absolutely killed his confidence.
With Labissiere not providing any inside scoring, most of that burden rests on Ulis and Murray, who not only have to create for themselves but also figure out a way to get easy buckets for their teammates.
At times—in the Duke game in particular—the duo has been up to the task. But it's hard to consistently win against talented teams when you're so reliant on two players, especially when one of those players—Murray—is a freshman and a streaky shooter. Unfortunately for the 'Cats, they are currently living and dying with those two guys.
"We can't afford to have two and three guys not play well—like, give you doughnuts," Calipari said in his postgame press conference. "We're not that good. It forces other guys to try to do too much."
That was magnified against LSU, when Kentucky's frontcourt was as bad as it gets. The combination of Poythress, Lee, Labissiere and Isaac Humphries combined for seven points, nine rebounds and 15 fouls in 54 minutes.
The quick fix for Kentucky, now 11-3 and 0-2 in true road games, is to play with a ton of energy and effort on the defensive end. This group has the quickness and athleticism to be pretty salty on that end.
The offense is going to take a little more imagination. Calipari opened the second half Tuesday with a set play to get Poythress a post-up isolated on the left block. The result was Poythress fumbling the ball away.
"We ended up having to play a lot on the perimeter. We started the second half and said we're throwing it in the post, don't care what happens," Calipari said. "Obviously, that didn't work."
Calipari has to scrap the idea of throwing the ball in the post and figure out ways to create space for Murray and Ulis to go to work and then get Poythress, Lee and Labissiere easy shots around the rim.
That is a challenge when defenses know UK's bigs and Briscoe can't make shots to hurt them outside of the paint. Poythress and Lee are good at rolling hard to the bucket off pick-and-rolls, but the lack of perimeter shooters allows defenses to double-team or hard-hedge Ulis and Murray off ball screens, as LSU did in the second half, and pack the paint with their other defenders.
It's still only Jan. 5, and Calipari deserves some patience. The man has taken four of his last five teams to the Final Four and included in that mix was a No. 8 seed.
But, again, the talent this season isn't on par with those rosters. In some ways, this group resembles the 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tournament. This team lacks the interior scoring that just so happened to be a bugaboo of that NIT team.
This group is not on that path, as Murray is a better perimeter scorer than that team had, and Ulis is just too good and too stubborn to allow such a free fall.
But if the Wildcats are to compete for the SEC title and have success in March, they better lift the hood and undergo a major tune-up once they get back to Lexington.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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