Is This Kentucky's Worst Team Under John Calipari?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2018

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 09:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Texas A&M Aggies at Rupp Arena on January 9, 2018 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Kentucky fell out of the AP Top 25 this past week. If you have any friends or family in Big Blue Nation, please check on them immediately.

"We're probably somewhere around DEFCON 3," said Tom Leach, Kentucky's play-by-play radio announcer, of the level of worry surrounding the Wildcats.

This is not the worst Kentucky team John Calipari has had. That honor is likely forever held by the 2013 NIT squad, but the Wildcats are trending more toward the bubble than any other group he's had in Lexington.

Some of the usual ingredients are there. Every recruiting service had Kentucky with the No. 2 recruiting class—finishing in the top two of recruiting rankings is an annual occurrence for Calipari at UK—and the program has several one-and-done prospects. Still, the pieces just don't seem to fit.

The Wildcats (15-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC) are not performing at elite levels at either end. Kentucky ranks 55th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and 27th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They're a team that is no longer considered part of the national title conversation, which is troubling (and an outlier) when it comes to UK basketball.

This is how they got there:

        

Roster Construction

In constructing this roster, Calipari seemed to bank on the wave of positionless basketball making it all work. But the key to the positionless craze is spreading the floor with playmakers and shooting.

"It's nice to have players [who] when they shoot, you're surprised they miss," 247 recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. "Does Kentucky have a guy like that?"

What Calipari does have is an army of guys who are ideal fits as college 4s. Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt likely are all future pros. And they would all be at their best slotted at power forward.

Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo, the starting backcourt in six games so far this season, are both players who have the size and length to be effective as small-ball 4s, similar to how Kansas used Josh Jackson last year.

Hamidou Diallo is one of a handful of players John Calipari has had to play out of his natural position this season.
Hamidou Diallo is one of a handful of players John Calipari has had to play out of his natural position this season.James Crisp/Associated Press/Associated Press

Instead, Calipari has been forced into playing many of his bigs out of position, because he has to find them minutes and his depth in the backcourt is thin, making him to go big.

Kentucky also has been burned by injuries. Freshman Jemarl Baker has yet to play a game because of a knee injury. He would have factored into the backcourt rotation and likely been the team's best shooter. And Vanderbilt is only three games in after missing the first 17 games with a foot injury.

Even UK's best available pure shooter, freshman point guard Quade Green, has missed three games because of a back injury.

Some of the blame for the offensive woes falls on Green, even though, to be fair, he has been placed in a difficult position. While Kentucky traditionally has leaned heavily on its star point guards throughout the Calipari era, at this stage in his career, Green is more of a role player with the potential to be a good college playmaker. But because UK is lacking other natural playmakers, the fact that Green hasn't played at the All-American level of many of his predecessors has bogged down the Wildcats attack.

Calipari said this week that he'd like to have his team make six or seven three-pointers a game, which is probably beyond its means. The Wildcats have hit at least six treys in only six out of 20 games thus far, and they're shooting 34.4 percent from three (and only 30.6 percent in conference games). The Wildcats rank 347th nationally in three-point rate. They attempting 24.8 percent of their shots from deep, which is a reasonable approach considering the roster construction.

Getting those looks hasn't been easy, however. Outside of Green and Vanderbilt, no one on the roster has ever played the role of setup man.

"These guys were not quick decision-makers with the ball in their hands making plays," Meyer said. "They were typically finishers, rebounders and 'I can't get my shot off, so I make a pass' [guys]. If you have a whole team of, 'oh, I can't get my shot off, so I'm going to make a pass' [players], you don't get a whole lot of good shots."

         

Where's the Defense?

The most impressive aspect of Calipari's habit of turning freshmen-led teams into national title contenders is the ability to create dominant defenses on the fly.

Kentucky has finished in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency in four of Calipari's eight seasons with Kentucky.

On paper, this group looks like it could be dominant on that end. Super long and bouncy, the roster is filled with athletes who can guard multiple positions. So far, they do defend the three-point line. Opponents are knocking down just 27.9 percent of their shots from deep, which is the third-best mark in the nation.

While Kentucky has been able to limit opponents from beyond the three-point arc, it has struggled to keep teams from attacking the rim.
While Kentucky has been able to limit opponents from beyond the three-point arc, it has struggled to keep teams from attacking the rim.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Inside the arc has been another story, as they've struggled to keep the ball in front of them.

"It starts with your feet, and when you're playing guys down a position, you're typically going to be guarding a guy with quicker feet," Meyer said. "Usually, we do best guarding guys that are like us, like looking into a mirror. When you have to guard a guy that's not like you and you're not accustomed to guarding, it makes it tougher. To me, that's an issue."

Another issue is their apparent inability to rebound on those occasions they do force a missed shot, which is surprising, given that the Wildcats are the fourth-tallest team in college basketball, according to KenPom.com's metrics. Yet Kentucky ranks just 247th in defensive-rebound percentage in the nation this season.

This appears to be because the Wildcats are getting beaten so consistently off the dribble. So they are forced to send help and move players away from the basket. Often, young players who sell out to try to block a shot leave the door open for easy putbacks.

As a result, Calipari has resorted to playing more zone defense than he would like. The solution could be to downsize to a quicker lineup of Green, Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo, and then either Knox or Vanderbilt at the 4 and a remaining big man at the 5. Per my research, that perimeter trio has logged only 28 minutes together in SEC play, and opponents have outscored them 50-43.

The offense has surprisingly sputtered, but the defensive efficiency is similar to UK's conference number. The sample size is small, but it might be worth exploring that lineup more going forward as the cross-matches with that lineup make more sense: a point guard would defend an opposing point guard, a shooting guard against a shooting guard, a small forward would take a small forward, etc. 

         

Reason for Hope

This isn't the first season where the UK outlook has been bleak in January only to end deep in the NCAA tournament. In 2011, Kentucky went just 10-6 in the SEC but then made the Final Four as a No. 4 seed. And in 2014, the Wildcats had even steeper odds. They entered the tournament at 24-10 and with a No. 8 seed, but that group, which also included five freshman starters, made the national title game.

"I kind of chuckle when people write them off now," Leach said. "That could turn out to be true, but it also may turn out to be false. We've seen it before. [The formula has] worked out pretty well if you look at it over time. … They've been right there in the hunt six out of eight years, either in the Final Four or right there at the doorstep."

Calipari is a Hall of Famer for a reason, and he seems to find a way to figure things out. Like his '14 squad, which had seven players who eventually played in the NBA, this roster is filled with probable pros. The difference is the pieces don't fit as well together with this group, nor does it have the usual surefire lottery pick.

In Jonathan Wasserman's current mock draft for B/R, Knox is the highest selection at No. 10. If it played out that way, it would be the first time Calipari has not had a player taken in the top eight since he arrived at UK. In four out of eight years, he's had multiple players go in the lottery. Gilgeous-Alexander, Vanderbilt and Diallo could eventually land there, but it's not a given.

Kevin Knox is projected to be perhaps the only player on the Kentucky roster who might be a top-10 draft pick this June.
Kevin Knox is projected to be perhaps the only player on the Kentucky roster who might be a top-10 draft pick this June.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The biggest unknown is Vanderbilt. He might be the best passer on the roster, and his game is probably best described as a poor man's Ben Simmons. His shooting isn't going to help, but he at least allows Calipari to get another playmaker on the floor. And as one of the quicker athletes on the roster, his presence could eventually help defensively.

But it's difficult to try to add a piece like that in January, especially to a roster that is probably the youngest in the history of college basketball. It's at least the youngest since 2006-07, when Ken Pomeroy started tracking experience.

The good news for Kentucky fans is they never need to wait long for solutions. Calipari has some guards who can shoot on the way, in 2018 signees Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro. And with some of these current freshmen bound to stay, that team should have a layer of experience to rely on.

As for this season, is it a lost cause? It's still too early to bet against Calipari, but he has more work cut out for him than any other year he's spent in Lexington.

      

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.

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