King's Court: What's Wrong with Kentucky?

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagDecember 18, 2013

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They were McDonald’s All-Americans, 5-star prospects and members of the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history.

Or at least that’s what some folks called it.

Less than two months after opening the season as the top-ranked team in America, the narrative has changed for John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats—the team he not-so-secretly believed could go 40-0.

“My hope,” Calipari told Bleacher Report, “was that we would be the best team in the last 12 years.”

Instead, Kentucky is 8-3, lacking a quality win and searching to find itself following an atrocious showing in Saturday’s 82-77 loss at North Carolina. The Wildcats looked disjointed and, even worse, disinterested. There were no high-fives or chest bumps following good plays or fits of rage after bad ones. 

Mostly, they were expressionless, as if they didn’t care.

“We have so much talent on our team,” freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said. “That’s never the question when we lose. It’s more about, ‘Can we take a punch?’”

The Wildcats can’t. Not yet.

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And they aren’t very good at throwing them, either.

With a showdown against defending national champion Louisville looming on Dec. 28 and SEC play less than three weeks away, Kentucky will spend the holidays trying to figure out what has gone wrong—and how to fix it. 

Here are five things that have plagued the Wildcats thus far:

1. Point guard play: Andrew Harrison was the No. 1-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, but he’s been a massive disappointment thus far. Last week, an NBA scout sent me a text asking if I thought Calipari would trade Harrison for Kansas freshman Frank Mason, who picked the Jayhawks after decommiting from Towson. The scout was kidding. I think. Harrison averages 10.9 points but is shooting just 39 percent from the field. Even worse, he’s averaging 2.5 turnovers and has been unable to consistently get standout forward Julius Randle quality touches in the paint. All of it has resulted in an offense that appears discombobulated while struggling to get good shots. Most of Kentucky’s baskets in the second half against North Carolina came in transition or on busted plays.

2. Perimeter defense: Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina all beat Kentucky by shooting better than 47 percent from the field. On Saturday, the Tar Heels made 56.7 percent of their field goals in the second half. The biggest problem for the Wildcats is on the perimeter, where opposing guards are blowing by Andrew Harrison, twin brother Aaron and backup Dominique Hawkins, an unheralded reserve who didn’t receive a scholarship offer until April. Kentucky’s second layer of defense hasn’t been much better. North Carolina guard Marcus Paige made numerous uncontested layups and short jumpers Saturday when Kentucky’s forwards failed to help in the paint after its guards were beaten off the dribble.

Dec 1, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA;  Kentucky Wildcats guard James Young (1) steals the ball from Providence Friars forward Tyler Harris (25) in the second half at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

3. Inconsistency on the wing: Shooting guard Aaron Harrison is billed as a three-point marksman, but he’s shooting just 31.9 percent from beyond the arc. The Wildcats’ other top long-range threat, James Young, has connected on just 34.2 percent of his threes. The more Harrison and Young struggle, the easier it becomes for teams to channel their defensive focus toward other areas. North Carolina’s zone on Saturday completely baffled Kentucky.

4. Lack of leadership: Calipari’s first Kentucky team went 35-3 and reached the Elite Eight in 2010 with star freshmen such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. But that squad also had a pair of seasoned upperclassmen in Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller to set an example for the newcomers. The following year, Miller and senior DeAndre Liggins did the same thing for freshmen Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. That team reached the Final Four. And you can bet that Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will admit they never would’ve won the 2012 NCAA title if not for the guidance of Kentucky’s upperclassmen. This year’s team has just two players (sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein) who have significant experience. But they were freshmen on a Kentucky team that didn’t even make last year’s NCAA tournament. And both of them are so soft-spoken that it’s difficult to hear them sometimes. Hardly the qualities of a leader. The offseason transfer of Kyle Wiltjer to Gonzaga may have hurt Kentucky in ways Calipari never would’ve expected.

5. Expectations: In retrospect, the hype for this year’s Kentucky team was out of whack. Both fans and media assumed that because Calipari had won with freshmen-dominated teams before, he would do it again with his best recruiting class ever. Now it’s evident that his past teams were blessed not just with talent, but with players with heart who valued winning so much that they put aside their individual goals for the betterment of the entire team. They came to relish playing defense and learned to share the ball, taking as much pride in their teammates’ success as their own. This group hasn’t exhibited those qualities. At least not yet.

“Our emotion is all based off our individual play instead of our team play,” Calipari said. “We just got a great stop! Let’s all high-five and chest each other and go nuts! We’re not close to that right now. Our emotion is all based on, ‘Did I miss a free throw? Did I get beat off the dribble? Did I miss a shot?’ We’ve got to get through this.

“Where we are right now...we’ve got a long way to go.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said it’s too early to write off Kentucky.

“People take for granted what John did two years ago,” Williams told Bleacher Report on Monday. “Winning that championship with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague—all those freshmen—was one of the most phenomenal things ever.

“The culture of summer basketball makes the individual so much more important than the outcome of the game. The NBA has gotten so big, and the money is so huge—just look at TV programs like Cribs—that college is almost like a bus stop. It’s extremely hard to get those kinds of kids, who have been in that culture already, to focus on a common goal.

“It takes a unique group. John’s team this year could develop into one of those groups, but we just don’t know yet. It’s awfully hard.”

Report Card

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 08:  Coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels calls instructions to his team during a game against the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the Dean Smith Center on November 8, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolin
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

A: Roy Williams—Who knows how things will play out, but as league play approaches, I think Williams has done the best coaching job of anyone in America. I can’t remember the last time a team had three nonconference wins as impressive as the Tar Heels’ victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky. Even more impressive is that they came after a horrendous start to the season that included a home loss to Belmont. And I haven’t even mentioned the distraction caused by the off-court problems of top player P.J. Hairston. Williams has done a masterful job of making adjustments and rallying his team.

B: Kenny Chery—Baylor’s point guard isn’t going to contend for first-team All-Big 12 honors like his predecessor, Pierre Jackson. But he’s done a solid job of replacing the conference’s scoring leader and is the main reason the Bears are 9-1 and ranked No. 12. Chery is averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field. More importantly, he’s not forcing shots and trying to overtake games the way Jackson often did, sometimes to his team’s detriment. 

C: ACC—The conference everyone assumed would dominate college basketball hasn’t done much to stand out from the pack. Sure, Syracuse is undefeated, North Carolina has three banner wins and Duke touts arguably the country’s top player in Jabari Parker. But things get iffy after that. Pittsburgh finally played a decent opponent Tuesday, when it suffered its first loss of the season to Cincinnati. Notre Dame and Maryland have been disappointments, while Boston College has inexplicably regressed. Again, this isn’t a bad conference. Far, far from it. But it seems very top-heavy.

D: Marshall Henderson—I know he’s entertaining both on and off the court. And I get the hunch that, despite his legal problems, he’s probably a pretty good guy. But I’m just not big on players who consistently take more than 15 shots per game, especially when many of them are terrible shots. Sure, Henderson scores a lot. But so would plenty of other players if they were allowed to jack it up every time they touched the ball. Henderson is shooting 35 percent from the field for a mediocre team that will struggle to make the NCAA tournament. When I watch Ole Miss play, I rarely see any evidence of coaching or game-planning. Sometimes I wonder why Andy Kennedy even bothers to sit on the bench.

F: Andy Enfield—I realize this story is a few weeks old, but Enfield needs to be called out for the childish comments he made about Tim Floyd and Steve Alford during the offseason. “Tim Floyd shows up every day at work and realizes he lives in El Paso, Texas,” Enfield said, according to SI.com. “And he’s pissed he didn’t get the USC job.” Of Alford, the former New Mexico coach who is now at rival UCLA, Enfield said, “I’ve made it to one Sweet 16 in two years and he’s made it to one Sweet 16 in 18 years.” Floyd confronted Enfield about his remarks at last month’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Enfield is lucky Floyd didn’t punch him in the mouth. And Enfield has no business taking shots at Alford, who won five Mountain West titles at New Mexico. I’ve heard people say Enfield needs to “act like he’s been there.” The problem is that he can’t, because he hasn’t.

Questions for the King (from reader emails)

1. Which team has been the biggest disappointment thus far?

December 8, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans guard Julian Jacobs (12) is fouled on a scoring drive by Boston College Eagles guard Olivier Hanlan (21) during the second half at Galen Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODA
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I realize no one picked Boston College to be a high NCAA tournament seed, but I was expecting more from the Eagles. Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlan are two of the better players in the ACC. They’re combining to average 36.3 points, but that hasn’t been enough for the Eagles, who are toting losses to Toledo, Providence, USC and Maryland.  They're 4-7 overall. I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before coach Steve Donahue falls out of favor with the school’s fans and brass.

2. How would you rank the nation’s top five freshmen?

Based on performance, I’d do it in this order:

1. Jabari ParkerSFDuke
2. Julius RandlePFKentucky
3. Aaron GordonPFArizona
4. Andrew WigginsSFKansas
5. Joel EmbiidCKansas

But if I were an NBA general manager, my wish list would go like this:

1. Jabari ParkerSFDuke
2. Joel EmbiidCKansas
3. James YoungSFKentucky
4. Julius RandlePFKentucky
5. Andrew WigginsSFKansas

3. What conference has surprised you the most thus far?

Even though Kansas is still working out some kinks, the Big 12 overall is a bit better than I expected. We knew Oklahoma State would be salty, and the Cowboys are. But Baylor, which lost Jackson, the Big 12 scoring and assists leader, has a trio of nice wins against Colorado, Dayton and Kentucky, and looked decent against Syracuse. The Bears aren’t as big of a surprise as Iowa State. I thought the Cyclones would be good eventually, but I figured it’d take some time considering they lost four double-digit scorers. Fred Hoiberg’s squad is undefeated with wins against Michigan, Iowa and BYU (on the road). Other than Kansas, no Big 12 team lost more from last season than Oklahoma, yet the Sooners are 10-1. Rick Barnes’ Texas squad lost its four top scorers and somehow managed to get better. Texas Tech and West Virginia are hardly pushovers. Kansas State is improving after a rough start but is still likely an NIT team at best.

A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 7: Russ Smith #2, Chris Jones #3 and Montrezl Harrell #24 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate after a basket against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns during the game at KFC Yum! Center on December 7, 2013 in Louisville, Ke
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

1. Louisville—Schedule has been weak, but experience, toughness are unmatched. Final Four favorite.

2. Arizona—Aaron Gordon commands the headlines, but T.J. McConnell has been the X factor.

3. Syracuse—Are the Orange better than last year’s Final Four squad? Quite possibly.

4. Oklahoma State—Travis Ford’s Cowboys are playing with a mean streak. I like that.

5. Duke—Defense needs to get better, and it will. The offense looks crisp.

6. Michigan State—Consistency has been an issue, but I love all of the pieces.

7. Wichita State—The Shockers have a top-10 team and a top-10 coach.

8. Wisconsin—Ho-hum. The Badgers are really good—again. Should we really be surprised?

9. Ohio State—The schedule has been weak. I need to see more. Lots more.

10. Iowa State—Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, DeAndre Kane, Fred Hoiberg. Oh my!

11. North Carolina—Guard Marcus Paige is blossoming into one of college basketball’s top playmakers.

12. Oregon—Dana Altman: one of the country’s best at coaching second-chance players.

Thoughts From Press Row

1. An NBA scout told me Tuesday that Cleanthony Early isn’t the only Wichita State player with an NBA future.

“I really like Ron Baker,” the scout said. “A lot of people are starting to talk about him because he’s a big guard who can shoot it and play multiple positions. He’s probably a four-year guy in college, but he can play in the league.”

The 6’3” Baker was one of the heroes of the Shockers’ Final Four run last season. He’s averaging a team-high 14 points while shooting 50 percent from the field. 

2. The struggles continue for Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who appears to have fallen out of favor with head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Sulaimon didn’t play in the Blue Devils’ Dec. 3 victory over Michigan and only saw five minutes of action in Monday’s win against Gardner-Webb. He did not score.

Dec 16, 2013; Durham, NC, USA; Gardner Webb Runnin Bulldogs forward Donta Harper (0) defends as Duke Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) gets off a shot at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

“He's not playing well," Coach K told Bleacher Report. "You can see it. It's not about attitude. He's got a good attitude. He's a good team player. It's just not going well for him. It's kind of like in baseball, with one of your really good players striking out all the time. He can't get a hit. You've just got to keep positive with him."

Sulaimon said after Monday’s game that he is confident he can snap out of his funk.

"Not focusing on myself and watching my brothers play well is kind of helping me not think about it," Sulaimon said. "With the help of them and also doing extra stuff, I think I'll be out of it soon.

“It’s not the toughest thing I’ve faced before. I’ve faced tougher things and gotten through them.”

3. In one of the uglier games you’ll see all season, Pittsburgh suffered its first setback of the season 44-43 to Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden. During one stretch in the second half, Pittsburgh went more than 13 minutes without a field goal.

Following the loss, Panthers coach Jamie Dixon was asked if his team’s weak nonconference schedule may have played a factor when it finally took the court against a quality opponent. Pitt had defeated just one team with an RPI better than 75 (No. 71 Penn State). The RPI average of its first 10 opponents was 180.5.

“We’ve played good people,” Dixon said. “We just didn’t get it done tonight. We had the right guys shooting the ball. We just couldn’t get it done.”

The Panthers were out-rebounded 35-27, which is uncharacteristic for a Dixon-coached team.

“Our coaches schedule who they think we should play,” guard Cameron Wright said. “We don’t question that. We don’t question our character or our coaches’ character. We know who we are. That wasn’t University of Pittsburgh basketball tonight.” 

4. North Carolina small forward J.P. Tokoto told me head coach Roy Williams didn’t do anything drastic to help the Tar Heels break out of their funk following losses to Belmont and UAB.

“He just showed us film,” Tokoto said. “It was a matter of coach showing us what we did wrong and showing what he was yelling at us for. Sometimes, as a player, he yells at you and you hear what he says, but in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I don’t do that. He’s exaggerating.’ I’ve been guilty of it. We all have. But the eye in the sky doesn’t lie.”

5. It was good to see Memphis assistant Robert Kirby on the court Tuesday, just two months after donating a kidney to his sister. Kirby said he underwent a four-hour procedure, which was conducted by the same physician who operated on Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in October 2011.

“I was actually back at practice the very next day,” Kirby said before Tuesday’s loss to Florida. “I feel completely fine. I don’t even think about it unless I look down and see the scar.”

Kirby, 53, decided to donate the kidney to his 57-year-old sister, Virginia Kirk, when she began experiencing renal failure with only one functioning kidney before the transplant. Kirby’s mother, Ethel, died 17 years ago from kidney failure and lupus. She refused to let any of her 13 children be tested as possible donors as her health was failing. He didn’t want to see his sister experience the same fate.

Kirby said losing a kidney has caused him to decrease his protein intake, which hasn’t been a problem.

“I didn’t eat much red meat anyway,” he said.

This Week's Starting FiveCoaches doing a good job who aren’t receiving nearly enough credit

Nov 16, 2013; Moraga, CA, USA; St. Mary's Gaels head coach Randy Bennett yells to his team during the second half of the game against the Drake Bulldogs at McKeon Pavilion. The St. Mary's Gaels defeated the Drake Bulldogs 67-63. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szcze
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s—It’s still early, but the Gaels hardly appear to be reeling following the loss of point guard Matthew Dellavedova—one of the best players in school history—to graduation. Saint Mary’s is 8-0 with convincing wins over NCAA tournament-caliber teams Louisiana Tech and Boise State, the latter on the road. Bennett has averaged 27.2 wins over the last five seasons.

Larry Brown, SMU—Don’t be surprised if the Hall of Famer gets the Mustangs to the NCAA tournament in just his second season. Sparked by former Illinois State point guard Nic Moore and junior college All-American Yanick Moreira, SMU is 9-2, with the only setbacks coming against Virginia (by three points) and Arkansas (11). The Mustangs play their first game in renovated Moody Coliseum on Jan. 4 against Connecticut.

Frank Haith, Missouri—I actually thought Haith did a nice job last season, considering he had to deal with the unexpected loss of Michael Dixon along with the graduation of Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe. The Tigers finished 23-11 and lost six games by three points or less. Three starters graduated from that squad, yet Missouri is off to a 10-0 start, highlighted by a win over then-No. 18 UCLA. A victory over Illinois on Saturday would go a long way toward legitimizing the Tigers in the minds of anyone who may still be doubting them.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah—I love what’s going on with the Utes’ program. No longer is Krystkowiak’s squad the doormat of the Pac-12. Utah ended last season with a ton of momentum, winning four of its last five games and reaching the semifinals of the conference tournament. Now the Utes are off to a 9-1 start with a convincing win over BYU and a two-point loss at Boise State. No shame in that. Anyone who takes this team lightly will be making a grave mistake, and that’s a credit to Krystkowiak.

Tim Miles, Nebraska—The record (15-18) may not have been pretty, but the Cornhuskers made huge strides last season—Miles’ first in Lincoln—and took some of the best teams in the country to the wire. With a beautiful new arena and a fanbase eager to get behind a winning team, the pieces are in place for Miles to succeed. Much like Utah, Nebraska can no longer be viewed as a pushover. 

Rapid Fire
Better than I thoughtSan Diego State
Not as good as I thoughtVCU
Off the hot seatDerek Kellogg, Massachusetts
Still on the hot seatKen Bone, Washington State
Putting up a fightRick Barnes, Texas
Making a comebackMike Moser, Oregon
Where has he goneTarik Black, Kansas
On the way upLSU
On the way downWashington
Tough to get a read onUNLV

Pit Stops

Cook-Out, various locations, North Carolina—Some of the more frustrating travel moments in my life occur after arriving in a town past 10 p.m. and realizing I’m somewhere without a Whataburger or In-N-Out. The 99-cent McDouble at McDonald’s is always a solid late-night option—is there a better 99-cent burger on the market?—but I usually want something different when I’m away from home.

Thankfully I happened upon Cook-Out during last week’s trip to Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill. As the name suggests, Cookout chargrills its burgers, which led to the thick smoke clouds I noticed as I drove down Interstate 85. I exited on Hillsborough Road and pulled into the parking lot of the takeout-only joint. About 50 Duke students who had ordered from a carry-out window lingered outside, and the drive-thru line wrapped around the building. Clearly, I was in the right place.

Burgers are Cook-Out’s calling card, and rightfully so. The quarter-pound patty I ordered was thick and flavorful, reminding me of a burger I’d eat at—wait for it—a cookout. The condiments (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions) were cold, crisp and fresh. The choices of toppings seemed endless. Chili, grilled onions, slaw, barbecue sauce and more. I opted for a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a footlong chili dog. That’s the thing about Cook-Out—there’s a little something for everyone on the menu.

The best value is the Cook-Out Tray, a combo meal for $5.45 that includes either a burger or footlong hot dog along with two sides. Among the options: french fries (get ‘em cajun style), onion rings, hushpuppies, chicken wraps, BLTs and corn dogs. Wait...BLTs and corn dogs as side items? Yes, please.

Cook-Out also features more than 40 flavors of milkshakes ranging from peach cobbler to eggnog to banana-pineapple to peanut butter fudge. Even though I was told they’re the best in town, I was too stuffed to try one. That’s a purchase I’ll make next time. And there will be a next time.

Fuel Town Tacos, various locations, Dallas—Sticking with the theme of fast—but high-quality—food, I’ll give a ringing endorsement to one of the hidden gems in my hometown. Located in the back corner of a gas station at I-35 and Inwood near downtown, the tacos at Fuel Town are generally regarded as the best in Dallas, and the choices are plentiful with carnitas, chicken, al pastor, lengua (beef tongue), beef fajita and barbacoa all on the menu.

Served in warm flour tortillas and sprinkled with cilantro and diced onions, the tacos are a steal for $1.49 each. There are only a few seats inside Fuel Town, and they’re usually occupied. So you may have to eat your tacos in your car. But they smell so good that you wouldn’t have been able to wait until you got home, anyway.

Tortas, quesadillas and breakfast tacos are also on the menu at Fuel Town. Eat here once, and you’ll never go to Taco Bell again.

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JasonKingBR.

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