Kentucky Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for Remainder of Wildcats' Season
About halfway through the regular season, Kentucky has been mostly a disappointment with just a 13-4 record. There is still time to turn things around, but there are a lot of questions surrounding the program.
For those who watch this team regularly, it is clear there is plenty of talent on the roster. The squad has impressive wins over Duke and Louisville, and when playing to its potential, it can still contend for an SEC title and possibly more.
The problem is the Wildcats aren't always playing at their peak level, which has led to disappointing losses to UCLA, Ohio State, LSU and most recently Auburn.
There are certainly highlights at both the team and individual level, including some big-time performances by Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis. The problem is most fans are rightfully focused on what is going wrong and how to right the ship.
With a few months still remaining in the season, here is a look at the biggest questions surrounding Kentucky basketball.
Will Outside Shooting Improve?
At a certain point of the year in any sport, you usually accept a team for what it is. In this case, Kentucky hasn't shown it can be a quality shooting team, making just 32 percent of its shots from three-point range.
There have been some better performances in conference play, but even there, the team is just 32.6 percent from beyond the arc in five games. Aside from Jamal Murray, no one can be trusted to make a shot.
However, Derek Willis has started to get more playing time, and he can make open shots. Both Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress have also shown earlier in their careers the ability to knock down threes when given a chance.
The win over Louisville featured 11-of-23 shooting (47.8 percent) from three-point range. This could have been a fluke or a sign this team still has the ability to make shots. If the shooting does find a way to improve going forward, it could make the Wildcats a much more dangerous offensive team.
Can Bench Make a Real Contribution?
John Calipari has stated throughout this season and really throughout his career that he will give playing time to those who deserve it. This means if the starters are well ahead of the bench, those top players are going to be on the floor quite a bit.
That has been the situation for most of the season, although it's clear the team needs some more help from the bench.
Skal Labissiere hasn't provided much in his time on the floor, while Charles Matthews isn't yet a threat offensively. The rest of the players have struggled to get any consistent playing time.
On the plus side, Derek Willis is coming off his best game of the year against Auburn, finishing with 12 points and 12 rebounds in 31 minutes. The 6'9" junior usually provides solid minutes when he gets a chance, interestingly providing the highest offensive rating on the team at 133.4, per Sports-Reference.com.
More playing time for Willis could help this team going forward. Anything additional provided by Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins or anyone else would be gravy.
When Will Skal Labissiere Wake Up?
Continuing the idea of needing contributions from the bench, the real problem has been the inability to get much production from Skal Labissiere.
The 6'11" center began the year considered as one of the top players in the 2016 class and is still No. 6 in the latest NBA mock draft at DraftExpress, which means there is still obviously talent and potential.
In small doses, Labissiere has certainly shown that upside with strong post moves around the rim as well as the athleticism to be a difference-maker on both ends of the court.
Unfortunately, the freshman hasn't helped the team much since the beginning of the year. His averages are down to 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, which have dropped to 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in conference play.
Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress have struggled in recent games, but Labissiere hasn't been able to step up.
Though Kentucky is likely finished counting on him to break out, the chance that he does remains worth monitoring going forward.
Are Road Woes Going to Stay a Problem?
A blowout win over Alabama earlier this month was big because it was the team's first true road win of the season. For a squad loaded with freshmen and other inexperienced players, this was a necessary hurdle.
The problem is Kentucky followed that up with an embarrassing defeat to Auburn, dropping the overall record to just 1-3 on the road. The squad didn't prepare itself with too many tough chances during the nonconference season, and now it simply isn't ready to handle the hostile atmospheres in the SEC.
Arguably the biggest problem has been the poor shooting. In four road games, the Wildcats have made just 41.3 percent of their shots, including 31.9 percent from three-point range. The key to success in the only victory over Alabama was the willingness to drive inside, as only nine of 51 shots came from beyond the arc.
Kentucky clearly struggles making shots in new environments. The question is whether this will continue to lead to losses in the future.
Can This Team Win Close Games?
Kentucky was talented enough to beat inferior teams throughout the first couple of months of the season, but winning close games is a different challenge. It requires the mental strength to hit big shots, make key stops and avoid mistakes.
The Wildcats haven't done a great job of that this season with just a 2-3 record in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
One of those wins featured a 20-point second-half lead over Mississippi State before the Bulldogs made it interesting late. The other was an impressive two-point victory over Louisville, although even that featured a lost double-digit-point lead.
We still don't know if Kentucky can survive a back-and-forth battle in which a few key plays at the end are needed. Meanwhile, these late collapses remain troublesome and could be a sign of fatigue among the players.
In any case, the ability to pull out close wins will likely help define the rest of the season for this squad.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.