Will Kentucky enter the NCAA tournament undefeated? John Calipari deflected when asked about pundits picking his team to go undefeated, saying “they picked the Germans in World War II also.”
But whether or not the Wildcats can go wire to wire is the question on every college basketball fan’s mind after the 'Cats emerged unscathed from what will probably go down as their toughest matchup of the regular season, beating the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals 58-50 at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cardinals forced 18 turnovers, but shot only 25.9 percent from the floor and had just one assist. Kentucky trailed for all of 94 seconds, but that was enough to show that a good team can beat them. If the Cardinals had shot even 33 percent from the floor, the outcome of this contest would have been drastically different. You can credit Kentucky’s defense for a large portion of that low percentage, but Louisville missed at least eight wide-open looks.
However, the Wildcats won’t face another elite team until the NCAA tournament. They’re off until SEC play begins on Jan. 4 against Ole Miss. Their toughest stretch remaining will be a two-game road trip in which will they’ll face Florida and LSU on Feb. 7 and Feb. 10, respectively.
But Florida doesn’t have a true post player outside of Chris Walker, who has been inconsistent this season (and in limited time last season), and LSU is a year (and a Ben Simmons) away from being an SEC contender. No, the biggest challenge that Kentucky faces moving forward isn’t an opponent.
The biggest challenge for Kentucky will be to sort out its lineup again.
After Alex Poythress was lost for the season with a torn ACL, Kentucky’s 10-man platoon was officially finished. The White platoon (Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson) and Blue platoon (Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein) were about equal on defense. But the White platoon performed significantly better on offense at +0.54 points per possession, according to Luke Winn’s research.
But the main problem with the platoons is that two players have proven to be too good to take off the court for 20 minutes a game: freshman point guard Tyler Ulis and junior center Willie Cauley-Stein.
Amazingly, Cauley-Stein has averaged slightly more minutes this season (24.1) than he did a year ago (23.8) as a full-time starter. Still, because of his limited time, it’s best to evaluate Cauley-Stein -- or any player on Kentucky -- by his efficiency. By that metric, Cauley-Stein is playing at an astounding level. On defense, his turnover rate is 114th nationally, his block percentage is 61st and his steal percentage is 45th. Cauley-Stein's rise in the national player of the year conversation has been largely based on his defensive ability, but he is also outperforming several other first-round picks on offense.
His offensive rating is top-50 in the country at 129.8, but he is only using 18.4 percent of Kentucky’s possessions. Compare those offensive numbers to any other big in the Wildcats’ lineup -- Dakari Johnson (121.1 ORTG, 24%Poss), Trey Lyles (112.3 ORTG, 21.6%Poss), Karl-Anthony Towns (116.0 ORTG, 21.8%Poss) -- and you begin to wonder why they’re being used more than Cauley-Stein.
Sneaking Cauley-Stein into the lineup more often shouldn’t be too difficult. Frontcourt players become gassed, get into foul trouble and need to be switched more often than usual on a team that presses as often as Kentucky does. With Poythress out, there’s a more natural opening for Cauley-Stein to absorb minutes.
The bigger problems could come in the backcourt. There was never really a doubt that Ulis would be a more natural point guard than Andrew Harrison, but his game is surpassing the sophomore starter’s in several ways now. Ulis’ offensive rating is 126.2, with an effective field goal percentage of 61.5 and a true-shooting percentage of 62.6. Andrew Harrison’s offensive rating is 103.2 with an effective field goal percentage of 42.4 and a true-shooting percentage of 49.4. In other words, Ulis is taking (and making) better shots than Harrison. He’s also making more of an impact on the defensive side of the ball, jamming opposing guards and leaving them with little personal space in halfcourt sets. Against Louisville, Andrew Harrison went 1-6 from the floor, his only points coming on a late (but clutch) three-pointer; he also had six turnovers against four assists. Ulis scored 14 points and had two assists and no turnovers.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Calipari said of Ulis. “This will start the other dialogue, which is why I’m platooning.”
How will Andrew and his twin brother Aaron respond to if Ulis’ playing time increases at the expense of their own?
It’s an appealing problem to have -- so many really good players that you have to find creative ways to get the great players even more minutes -- but how Calipari handles it will be his biggest test of the rest of the regular season.