Kentucky Wildcats Facing Near Must-Win Situation vs. Rival Louisville Cardinals

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 27, 2019

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 21:  Ashton Hagans #0, Immanuel Quickley #5, EJ Montgomery #23, Tyrese Maxey #3 and Nate Sestina #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats walk back on the court after a timeout in their game against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Buckeyes defeated the Wildcats 71-65.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When AP No. 19 Kentucky hosts No. 3 Louisville on Saturday afternoon, all the pressure will be on the home team.

That isn't to say it's an unimportant game for Louisville. A road win would be huge in the 11-1 Cardinals' case for a No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA men's basketball tournament. But if they end up on the losing end in the latest installment of one of college basketball's greatest rivalries, it wouldn't be the end of the world.

At least Louisville would still be comfortably projected to reach the tourney.

If Kentucky loses, though, the sky will be falling in Lexington.

The Wildcats are 8-3 and enter this slugfest having lost consecutive games against Utah and Ohio State, both in Las Vegas. If they were to lose this one, it would be just the second time in the past 15 years11 with Kentucky, four with Memphisthat a John Calipari-coached team endured a three-game losing streak. (The previous came in February 2018.)

Kentucky's two biggest problems are blatantly obvious, but it's unclear whether either can be fixed.

First and foremost is the three-point shooting.

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The Wildcats had hovered slightly above the national average in three-point percentage each of the past five seasons, but they are now a disaster from the perimeter, shooting 27.8 percent as a team. They were 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) in the infamous loss to Evansville, and that was twice as good as the 2-of-17 (11.8 percent) effort in the loss to Utah.

The only Wildcat shooting 32 percent or better from distance is big man Nate Sestina (8-of-21; 38.1 percent), and he was at 23.1 percent prior to going 5-of-8 against Ohio State this past Saturday.

Maybe that one-game success in pick-and-pop action will be the start of something. If so, Sestina could thrive in the type of role that Derek Willis played during his final two seasons in Lexington.

Nate Sestina and Ashton Hagans
Nate Sestina and Ashton HagansBryan Woolston/Getty Images

But Willis was operating alongside Jamal Murray and Malik Monk in his junior and senior years, respectively, and that type of sniper does not exist on this roster. Ashton Hagans has been Kentucky's best player, but he is 21-of-76 (27.6 percent) from three-point range in his 48-game career.

The other star, Tyrese Maxey, has shot 25 percent or worse from deep in nine of his last 10 games and is 1-of-16 thus far in December. He had that late dagger in the marquee win over Michigan State, but it has mostly been bricks since then.

Immanuel Quickley is the most likely candidate to emerge as the primary three-point-shooting guard, but even he is below 34 percent for his career and has hit multiple triples in just five of his last 32 games.

Barring an unlikely development, this looks like something that will plague Kentucky for the rest of the year.

But a lack of three-point shooting doesn't have to be a death knell. There aren't many, but there are a few precedents in the past 20 years of teams succeeding in spite of an inability to make the deep ball.

Duke was at 30.2 percent from the perimeter when it earned a No. 1 seed last year. Louisville was only slightly better at 30.4 percent upon receipt of a No. 4 seed in 2015. And Marquette was at 30.1 percent on Selection Sunday 2013, earning a No. 3 seed. All three teams survived early scares and made it to the Elite Eight before bowing out.

But Duke had a generational talent in Zion Williamson, Louisville was elite on defense, and Marquette made up for its lack of shooting by owning the offensive glass and converting twos and free throws at a high clip. Aside from great free-throw shooting, it's unclear at this point where this Kentucky team holds a clear statistical advantage over the average foe.

That brings us to the biggest issue: This has beenwithout a close runner-upKentucky's most disappointing freshman class under Calipari.

Keion Brooks Jr.
Keion Brooks Jr.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Maxey has been solid, but there were three 5-star recruits and a total of four top-40 guys in this year's recruiting class. You wouldn't know it from looking at their production.

Keion Brooks Jr. did not score against Michigan State or Ohio State. Kahlil Whitney has a KenPom O-Rating of 87.0, which is downright reprehensible for a guy who has started eight of 11 games. Johnny Juzang is shooting just 6-of-27 from the field and has played a grand total of 17 minutes in Kentucky's four games against major-conference opponents.

In terms of Sports Reference's box plus/minus, Brooks is at 0.6, Whitney is at minus-0.5 and Juzang is at minus-2.0easily the worst among the nine Wildcats who have logged at least five minutes.

For the sake of comparison, Duke also signed four top-40 recruits in this year's class, and their BPMs are 5.1, 8.0, 9.5 and 11.3.

It'd be one thing for Kentucky to succeed in spite of one of their recruits not living up to the hype. The Wildcats did so last year with E.J. Montgomery struggling. They got along just fine in 2016-17 with Sacha Killeya-Jones barely playing.

With three of this year's four main recruits significantly underachieving, though, it's little wonder that Kentucky is No. 74 in the latest NET rankings.

And if the Wildcats are unable to win this rivalry game, they're going to enter SEC play with a tournament resume even worse than the one that landed them in the 2013 NIT.

John Calipari
John CalipariEthan Miller/Getty Images

That fateful year, they had a decent neutral-court win over Maryland, four losses to KenPom Top 40 opponents and a bunch of home wins over teams that never had any at-large potential. This year's best win (Michigan State) is better, but the losses to Utah and Evansville are substantially worse than anything suffered in the first two months of 2012-13.

It bears mentioning at this point that the SEC as a whole has been much worse than expected.

Auburn is 11-0 and might be a Final Four contender, though it has yet to face a true test. Arkansas is 10-1, but it has an 0-1 record against Quadrants 1 and 2. Every other SEC team has suffered at least three losses, and the only ones that received any votes in the latest AP poll were Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee.

As things currently stand in the NET, Kentucky could go 12-6 in league play without adding a single Quadrant 1 victory*. If that happens and the Wildcats lose at Texas Tech during the SEC-Big 12 challenge, you're looking at a 20-11 record with just that one quality win on the first day of the regular season.

Heaven only knows what this year's bubble is going to look like 10 weeks from now. That certainly doesn't seem like a tournament-worthy resume, though.

Feel free to convince yourself that it's still way too early to start worrying about the NCAA tournament at-large conversation, but this is a colossal fork in the road for Kentucky.

A win over Louisville could put the Wildcats back on the right track toward those preseason national championship aspirations. A loss would mean they might need at least 14 SEC winsa number they have fallen shy of more often than not over the past seven seasons—just to get invited to the dance.

Suffice it to say, this would be a nice time for Brooks or Whitney to show up with some clutch threes.

*Their six Q1 games are vs. Auburn, at Auburn, at Arkansas, at Tennessee, at Florida and at LSU. KenPom has all six projected as coin flips, giving the Wildcats a 37-62 percent chance of victory in each one. Lose those six and win the other 12, and you get this potential nightmare scenario.

                         

Recruit rankings courtesy of 247 Sports.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.