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The Watch: Kentucky is down, but likely not for long

The SEC’s improvement and a relatively average class have the ’Cats trending toward .500.

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NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

A day after Kentucky existed Columbia with a loss to Missouri, our colleagues at A Sea of Blue asked a question.

Is this rock bottom?

I chuckled. Seriously. Not a howling laugh. Just a snicker of amusement. Logically, I sort of comprehend how that query seems reasonable. And I’m sure a few Kentucky partisans would loudly say I can’t possibly fathom the standard that exists for the Wildcats.

So bad that the Wildcats still didn’t fall out of the AP poll on Monday.

Come on. Let’s think about this for a minute. Or consider some evidence. Once we do so, the explanation seems straightforward: John Calipari has — by his standard — a solid but not spectacular roster playing in a vastly improved SEC. Look at the handy table below, which was assembled using KenPom data.

Calipari’s Eternal Youth

Year Conference Rank Rating Conference W-L Experience Experience Rank Bench Minutes Bench Rank KenPom Finish NCAA Seed
Year Conference Rank Rating Conference W-L Experience Experience Rank Bench Minutes Bench Rank KenPom Finish NCAA Seed
2018 SEC 4 14.59 6-4 0.19 351 29.40% 244 30 NA
2017 SEC 5 12.91 16-2 0.96 340 29.80% 227 4 2
2010 SEC 5 12.63 14-2 0.83 341 28.20% 233 4 1
2015 SEC 5 11.74 18-0 0.73 346 39.90% 27 1 1
2016 SEC 6 11.24 13-5 0.96 339 29.00% 270 6 4
2012 SEC 4 10.68 16-0 0.77 340 21.60% 323 1 1
2014 SEC 6 10.46 12-6 0.31 351 23.60% 306 13 8
2011 SEC 7 9.49 10-6 1.16 312 20.20% 334 7 4
2013 SEC 7 8.49 12-6 0.91 334 31.00% 160 55 None
2009 CUSA 9 4.58 16-0 1.84 115 26.50% 266 4 2
2008 CUSA 10 4.49 16-0 1.61 196 31.40% 156 2 1
2007 CUSA 10 2.54 16-0 1.27 288 34.90% 64 9 2

What jumps out?

Even by Kentucky and Calipari’s standards, this is an exceptionally young group. While his program’s churn rate is high, Cal usually retains two to three veterans to supply a commodity: shooting, rim protection, steady ballhandling. That didn’t happen last April, though. Only Wenyen Gabriel stuck around, and the sophomore is cut from the 3-and-D mold. Injuries also robbed Calipari Jemarl Baker, a top-75 freshman with NBA range from the perimeter the ‘Cats scrambled to add. Meanwhile, freshman combo forward and McDonald’s Jarred Vanderbilt returned from an injury to join the rotation.

Second, look at the SEC’s rating. It’s never been higher during Calipari’s tenure. After coaching upgrades at Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee, half the conference’s programs are rated inside the KenPom top-50 and none are outside the top-100. You could easily argue the league hasn’t been this strong since 2007 when only South Carolina (No. 126) fell outside that range.

None of the contenders stuffed their rosters with veterans, either. Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State skew younger, each ranking lower than 250th nationally in experience, according to KenPom. But the Tide, Tigers, and Vols do have depth. And in Tuscaloosa, the Plains and Starkville, new coaches have spent the past several years recruiting top-25 classes. At Tennessee, Rick Barnes has been exceptional at player development. Meantime, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin spackled together two elite freshmen bigs (Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter), a graduate transfer (Kassius Robertson) and holdovers from Kim Anderson’s failed regime.

When your bench is short and opponents are far from watered down, your freshmen need to be elite. And that’s just not the case this season in Lexington. Looking at any rankings compiled by draftniks will underscore the observation. Here’s how ESPN’s Jonathan Givony slotted Wildcats in his rankings ($):

  • Kevin Knox: No. 12
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: No. 18
  • Hamidou Diallo: No. 28
  • Jarred Vanderbilt: No. 51
  • Nick Richards: No. 52
  • PJ Washington: No. 53

There’s one potential lottery pick in Knox. Gilgeous-Alexander’s developed rapidly enough to be an intriguing mid-first-rounder. Diallo oozes athleticism in the open floor, and front offices might be sold on the idea the spacing of the NBA unlocks his potential. Vanderbilt would generally be a candidate to return, but he has an injury history that might push him to bail. Gabriel’s combination of perimeter shooting and defense — and the fact he’ll be recruited over again — also means he’s likely to bolt.

When you read in-depth scouting reports ($) or spend time analyzing data on Synergy Sports, it’s hard to be sold on the idea that there’s heaps of potential Calipari’s failing to unlock. There’s only so many schematic tricks you can pull out of the bag, too. At times, Cal has used a zone to mask issues guarding man-to-man. He’s selectively pressed to pick up the tempo. And he moved Gilgeous-Alexander to point because the 6-foot-6 wing is the only reliable creator he has running a set offense.

Synergy Sports data makes it clear, too, that Kentucky is pedestrian operating against a set five.

In the build-up to Saturday, Sam and I talked about how Mizzou wanted to face Kentucky in the half court. Our hypothetical gameplan was straightforward.

Clog the lane with bodies, close out low and strong on jump shooters, and make post entries difficult. Do these things and limit the number of fast break opportunities for the Wildcats, and you can limit them offensively.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can’t slither into a seam and crack the defense, it’s tough going for the ‘Cats. Knox’s shooting mechanics are stellar, and he owns a decent pull-up jumper and floater. But he’s inconsistent as a spot-up shooter and can’t create his own shot. Washington can cut off the ball and score with a quick move on a post-up, but there’s not much else. Diallo is an inefficient slasher in the halfcourt. Finally, Richards’ defensive lapses and still-developing post-up repertoire limit his effectiveness.

And there’s no help coming. Calipari can’t import John Wall or De’Aaron Fox to turbo-charge the fastbreak. There’s no Jamal Murray, Malik Monk or Devin Booker to punish teams for packing the paint. And no elite rim protector like Nerlens Noel or Anthony Davis to cover up defensive breakdowns.

Over the next 10 days, too, Kentucky’s trajectory may be pointed directly at a 9-9 finish in SEC play — the worst league performance for a Calipari team since 2005. UK’s game against Tennessee on Tuesday is the most winnable in a trio that features the Volunteers, Texas A&M and Auburn. Drop all three, and they’re sitting at 17-9 overall, 6-7 in the SEC standings and 3-8 against the KenPom top-50. While it’s unlikely Kentucky would miss the NCAA tournament, its seed line and expectations in March would be modest.

At almost any other program, we’d call this season what it is: a bridge year.

Richards, Washington, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Quade Green could be back, giving Calipari the makings of a post rotation and solid depth at point guard. Baker, theoretically, could return, adding some outside shooting to the mix. Those five would interlock with what is a three-man class where every prospect is ranked inside the top-35 of 247Sports’ composite index.

They’ll plug in five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley, the No. 15 prospect in 2018 while incorporating elite wings in Keldon Johnson (a driver) and Tyler Herro (a shooter) into the mix. The result could be an eight-man rotation with a prototypical lead guard, spot-up threats, an athletic and crafty slasher and size along the front line. At most programs, fans would be thrilled with the proposition. In Lexington? Welp. Patience isn’t always a virtue.

The roster would also match the rubric used by Calipari’s best teams — 2012 and 2015 — by fusing veterans and blue-chippers. The Wildcats are still the apex SEC program on the recruiting trail and Calipari’s acquisition of talent doesn’t seem terribly diminished. What he can’t say, or may not be inclined to utter, is that Kentucky’s one-and-done machine stopped humming for a year. Given what he’s done on the job, it’s not wrong to point it out, either.

But rock bottom?

No.

Let’s call it a lull.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Purdue at No. 4 Michigan State | 3 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

This space can be a prisoner of the moment, locked in looking at weekly cycles rather than the entire season as a whole.

That’s the only way I can explain neglecting Purdue and Michigan State, a pair of Big Ten teams who are national title contenders in otherwise down year for the conference.

At Purdue, continuity is the name of the game. Sure, Caleb Swanigan’s departure hurt. But coach Matt Painter kept a senior quartet of forward Isaac Haas, swingman Vincent Edwards, guard Dakota Mathias and point guard P.J. Thompson in West Lafayette. Almost 75 percent of minutes played last season are being played by the same Boilers this season, ranking 15th nationally. In essence, not a lot changed for this group, one comprised of unheralded recruits who slowly improved over four years.

In East Lansing, coach Tom Izzo’s crew is a tad younger, keyed by sophomores Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Josh Lankford. Toss in freshman Jaren Jackson, too. Their youth, however, doesn’t mean there’s a lack of stability. The Spartans rank 35th in minutes continuity, and, led by Bridges 17.5 points per game, get double-figure scoring from each member of their quintet.

It’s how you wind up with KenPom essentially doing this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Expect this one to live up to the Big Ten’s ethos: a half-court slugfest that could hinge on who can squeeze the most out of their possessions. Or generate extra trips.

Purdue will look to play inside out, posting up Haas (1.171 PPP) about eight times a game and letting him work. He’s stellar with either hand and flashing to the middle, and sending hard double teams doesn’t really slow him down. What’s critical, though, is the big man’s ability to distribute out of the paint. Haas’ passes generate 1.327 PPP, and he does not lack for options.

The Spartans also lean on spot-ups, but they’re not afraid to run, either. Almost 19.7 percent of MSU’s offense is generated in transition and they lead the Big Ten. Bridges (1.318 PPP), Jackson (1.33 PPP) and Langford (1.0 PPP) drive the open floor game, while Matt McQuaid and Winston are stellar spotting up on the wings. And characteristic of an Izzo-coached team, the Spartans can crash the glass to produce second-chance points and additional possessions.

This game could turn, though, on ball control. When the Spartans have struggled, it’s been in games where their turnover count mounts. Purdue just so happens to have three of the Big Ten’s better ballhawks in Carsen Edwards, Thompson and Mathias, who is the conference’s best on-ball defender. The Boilermakers don’t look to run — only 13.1 percent of their possessions are in transition -- but their efficiency (1.157 PPP) is 33rd nationally.

If Purdue can knock down 3-pointers and deprive Sparty of possessions, the Boilers have a path to getting out of East Lansing with a win and staying on track for an undefeated run through the Big Ten.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

No. 15 Tennessee at No. 24 Kentucky | 6 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN2

What’s at stake for the Volunteers?

The status quo.

But in a year where the SEC is trench warfare, holding on to your little patch of ground – and one as nice as second place – is a victory. Currently, Tennessee leads Florida, Kentucky and Alabama – the latter two which also Tennessee visit this week – by one game. Sweep the week, and Rick Barnes’ bunch not only get more breathing room but nab crucial tiebreakers by a 3-0 record against the ’Cats and Tide.

Now, Florida could still be a game back in the loss column, but Tennessee may have shored up its position for a double-bye in the SEC tournament. For a team picked 13th in the preseason, that’s more than enough consolation.

Winning the regular season title, though, might be a reach. Not only are the Vols two games behind Auburn, but the Tigers won the only meeting of the season by 10 points back in early January. To make it happen, UT needs Auburn to drop at least three games this month, which seems unlikely to occur.

But they are in a position to inflict a significant blow against Kentucky, which is currently in line for the fifth seed in St. Louis.

The Volunteers already rallied past UK for a 76-65 victory in early January, overcoming an eight-point halftime deficit. That night in Knoxville, you can trace a change in Tennessee’s fortunes to the 11:58 mark in the second half and the Wildcats trailing by a bucket: PJ Washington went down with cramps and limped off the floor.

Just take a look at the in-game win probabilities and it’s clear Washington’s exit loomed large.

At that juncture, Washington had tallied up 13 points, shooting 6 of 8 from the floor, and looked poised to become the ’Cats best frontcourt option. Over the past eight games, he’s been solid — 9.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — but sporting just a 40.0 effective-field-goal percentage. And, as the zone chart shows below, he’s been average with his touches.

On Tuesday, though, Washington could be a linchpin. He has a knack for cutting into openings created by a help-side rotation and can subsist on putbacks. His post-up repertoire is limited, but he’s got the height and wingspan to finish over the top by using his quickness to go to his left shoulder. While he can be abused as a solo defender on the block, his length could offer rim protection against Volunteers forward Grant Williams, who racked up 12 of his 18 points after Washington exited their first meeting.

The Volunteers rely on balanced perimeter scoring by Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden. By and large, though, the trio relies on spot-up shooting, and only Bone (0.967) attacks the rim out of isolation. None of them play in pick-and-rolls all that often. While Kentucky struggles at times in man-to-man, they’re only letting SEC foes shoot 25.1 percent from 3-point range, according to KenPom.

The Volunteers have excelled by embodying the collective, while UK is still a group in search of its identity. That being said, Kentucky has the kind of personnel to disrupt Tennesse’s flow.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Louisiana-Lafayette at Georgia State | 6:15 p.m. CT Thursday, ESPN3

Yeah, you’ll see a Kim Anderson Exile in this one: Jakeenan Gant.

And he embodies a philosophical shift by Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin. Throughout his eight years in Acadiana, Marlin mined Texas junior colleges and found undervalued in-state prospects — Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long, for example — to build his rosters.But it’s also cyclical and, as coaches like Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa experienced this season, brutal if all the pieces don’t coalesce.

So, as The Athletic’s Matt Craig detailed ($), Marlin tore a page out former rival Kermit Davis’ operation manual: load up on high-major transfers. It meant taking in Gant, guard Malik Marquetti from USC and guard Marcus Stroman from South Carolina. The year before, BYU guard Frank Bartley IV made his way to the bayou. But it also meant working shorthanded last year, and ULL trudged to a 10-8 record and quarterfinal exit from the Sun Belt Tournament.

“Taking three [transfers] was quite different for us,” Marlin says, “but they gave us all we could handle in practice every day last year.”

Few rosters in the Sun Belt are studded with players rated 53rd, 151st and 157th in 247Sports’ index. Meanwhile, Bartley and forward Bryce Washington also count as local prospects kept inside The Boot. They all fit nicely into an up-tempo system that plays up the Cajuns’ talent advantage and relative depth over teams in the Sun Belt.

Bartley, who leads the Cajuns at 16.5 points per game, is a multi-faceted scorer who can knock in spot-up jumpers (1.228 PPP), curling off screens on the wing and excellent down the left side in transition (1.438 PPP). At Mizzou, observers lamented how raw Gant’s game remained, relying on athleticism and second-chance opportunities. Well, it hasn’t changed much under Marlin. Gant makes a living on flashing into open space for feeds, leak outs and bolting down the floor to finish rim runs with dunks. For his part, Washington is the Cajuns’ more polished big.

Naturally, they’ve slashed and burned their way through the Sun Belt, piling up a 10-0 record and winning by 19.7 points per game. According to KenPom’s algorithm, there’s a 13.9 percent chance they finish league play unscathed — fourth best among teams with a chance to pull off that feat. Georgia State, which is 99th in KenPom, figures to be the biggest obstacle, one led by combo guard D’Marcus Simonds.

If you track under-the-radar draft prospects, Simonds is a sleeper pick — a high-major talent who picked GSU after Mississippi State fired Rick Ray. The scouting report is pretty straightforward: slow Simonds — easier said than done -- and you can go a long way toward handling the Panthers. On Thursday, ULL should have enough balance and diversity to prevail in what is a sneaky good tilt between top-100 KenPom foes.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Monday

  • No. 19 West Virginia at No. 17 Oklahoma, 8 p.m., ESPN

Tuesday

  • No. 5 Xavier at Butler, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Alabama at Mississippi State, 6 p.m., SEC Network
  • South Carolina at Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • TCU at No. 10 Kansas, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Missouri at Ole Miss, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Wednesday

  • No. 2 Virginia at Florida State, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Marquette at Seton Hall, 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 14 Ohio State at No. 3 Purdue, 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • Texas A&M at No. 8 Auburn, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • North Carolina State at Virginia Tech, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday

  • No. 9 Duke at No. 21 North Carolina, 7 p.m., ESPN
  • SMU at Houston, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • UCSB at UC-Davis, 9 p.m., ESPN3
  • USC at Arizona State 10 p.m., ESPN2

Saturday

  • Butler at No. 1 Villanova, 11 a.m., Fox
  • No. 10 Kansas at Baylor, 1 p.m., CBS
  • No. 21 North Carolina at North Carolina State, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 5 Xavier at Creighton, 1:30 p.m., Fox
  • No. 15 Tennessee at Alabama, 5 p.m., SEC Network
  • Virginia Tech at No. 1 Virginia, 5:15 p.m., ESPN
  • UCLA at Arizona State 6 p.m., Pac 12 Networks
  • No. 7 Texas Tech at Kansas State, 7 p.m., ESPNU
  • San Diego State at No. 23 Nevada, 7 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 24 Kentucky at Texas A&M, 7:15 p.m., ESPN
  • Grand Canyon at New Mexico State, 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 12 Gonzaga at No. 11 Saint Mary’s, 9 p.m., ESPN2
  • USC at No. 13 Arizona, 9:15 p.m., ESPN

Sunday

  • No. 6 Cincinnati at SMU, 3 p.m., ESPN
  • Bradley at Southern Illinois, 3 p.m., ESPN3

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!