- This week's roundtable tackles Kentucky's long-term outlook, the most impressive start by a first-year coach and Nevada's chances at entering the Big Dance undefeated.
Welcome back to the Tuesday Shootaround! After another exciting week in college hoops, which included No. 1 Gonzaga falling and a familiar face taking the Bulldogs' top spot in the AP top 25, things quiet down a bit for the next few days while many teams hit the books for finals.
In this week's roundtable, we take a look at where our expectations for Kentucky stand now, the most impressive job by a first-year coach so far and the chances that Nevada gets through the rest of its regular season unscathed.
There's plenty of season left, but right now it's clear Kentucky isn't the team many expected at this juncture. As their schedule ramps up, have your long-term expectations for the Wildcats changed?
Dan Greene: As someone who had Kentucky winning it all before the season, they certainly have. The Cats' backcourt hasn't played at the level that the more optimistic among us expected, spearheading the team's turnover issues and not yet providing the steady outside shooting it needs. As a team, they're also doing a poor job defending the perimeter. It's not going to get any easier in a particularly strong SEC, where Tennessee and Auburn are again looking like the class of the conference.
Jeremy Woo: I was at the Seton Hall loss, and there was very little to commend about anything Kentucky was doing—PJ Washington was the only semblance of consistency, none of its freshman had good days, and there was understandably a lot of head-scratching going on. I will preface this statement by noting how underwhelming the SEC has been relative to my expectations, but in the shadow of teams like Tennessee and Auburn playing convincing basketball, it’s hard to feel great about the Wildcats’ chances of winning the conference. Yes, we’ve seen them figure things out more or less on the fly before, but the talent level at Kentucky is simply not as high as some of their past teams, and they will be put through the ringer. That’s not to say UK won’t put it together in March and secure, say, a Sweet 16 berth, but if it can’t unlock Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro—its two best scorers—on a more consistent basis and if nobody steps up at point guard, this might be a fringe top-25 team.
Max Meyer: I picked them to make the Final Four before the season tipped off, but now I wouldn’t be surprised if they were eliminated in the tournament’s first weekend. The Wildcats play incredibly sloppy basketball and aren’t a strong outside shooting team. Kentucky has as much upside as nearly anyone in the country, but other SEC teams like Auburn and Tennessee look a lot more cohesive on the floor. The Wildcats are an extremely young group, so they will get better as the season progresses. I’m not really sold, however, on their high-end talent, and that will be the difference in March.
Molly Geary: The expectations have definitely change for me. I had Kentucky in the Final Four to start the season, but they're currently a long way off from making that prediction seem realistic. We've seen talented and young John Calipari teams turn it on late in the season, and that’s certainly possible again, but the concern right now is that this year it’s the defense lagging behind. Perhaps that will turn out to be a good thing, and Calipari will get this group up to speed on that end, but the fact that opponents are shooting 40% from three does not bode well. After Utah this Saturday, the ‘Cats schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher. It has a semi-favorable start to SEC play, but Kentucky can't afford to drop many early games if it's to have a shot at winning the conference.
Michael Shapiro: The Wildcats looked to be legitimate Final Four contenders heading into the season, bringing a quartet of five-star freshman to a lineup more experienced than many previous John Calipari teams. The influx of talent paired with the veterans (as well as impact transfer Reid Travis) should have formed a Kentucky squad that could hit the ground running. That hasn’t been the case thus far. It’s too early to hit the panic button in Lexington, though I’m inclined to believe the current issues will stick long term. The Wildcats don’t shoot it particularly well from three, nor do they defend the three well. Keldon Johnson has been the lone impact freshman, while EJ Montgomery and Ashton Hagans look lost. Travis has adjusted well, while sophomore PJ Washington has faded too often despite a 29-point effort against Seton Hall. Tennessee is clearly the class of the SEC right now, and Kentucky’s March ceiling feels more like the second weekend than the Final Four.
Emily Caron: Now 0–2 away from Rupp Arena and 0–2 against top-75 teams, Kentucky has shown that it's still got some things to figure out when it comes to meshing its talented freshmen with its upperclassmen. Calipari-coached teams usually do well with balance like he has this year, but it’s just not clicking as quickly as it usually does in Lexington. I’m confident that Calipari will eventually get this team right considering that two of the last three times Kentucky has lost multiple games before Dec. 9, it's still made it to the Final Four. I’m not too worried now, but if January comes and the Wildcats are still not winning, then I’ll say it’s time to reconsider the long-term outlook.
Which job by a first-year head coach have you been most impressed with so far?
Greene: Chris Mack at Louisville. With all the tumult in that athletic department, there was no guarantee even a coach with his bona fides would succeed out of the gate. While Louisville has already lost three times, two of those defeats were by one possession away from home against quality teams (Marquette and Indiana) and the third was on a neutral floor to now-No. 3 Tennessee. Meanwhile among the Cards' wins are an upset of Michigan State and a true road win at Seton Hall. That's a pretty darn good showing for a challenging early schedule in a transition season. This looks like a team that will be in the at-large mix come March. Also, an honorable mention should be made of Dan Hurley's quality start with a UConn program that slid off the rails last season.
Woo: Dan Hurley has UConn at a respectable 7–3, and has taken in essence the same group that went 14–18 last season and injected a huge dose of identity. That’s commendable, and watching the Huskies’ transformation from a lackluster team into a group that looks fully bought-in has been fun—their win over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden was a nice statement, and they look like a team that can hang near the top of the AAC as the conference slate approaches. They’ll blitz you defensively and try to create chaos, and have gotten results, playing Arizona and Florida State close this month. Jalen Adams isn’t a great pro prospect, but he’s a solid leading man for them, and having Alterique Gilbert healthy has been a huge boost. Once Hurley begins to cycle recruits in, expect the Huskies to return to national relevance sooner than later. The NCAA tournament may be within reach for this group.
Meyer: Utah State has gone from starting the season ranked No. 168 on kenpom.com to currently residing at No. 58. First-year head coach Craig Smith has greatly improved the speed the Aggies have been playing at, shooting up to 62nd in adjusted tempo after not going higher than 238th in the three years under Tim Duryea. This program is already markedly improved in Smith’s initial campaign at the helm, and the Aggies have emerged as the best bet to hand Nevada a loss.
Geary: I’ll also go with Utah State’s Craig Smith, as I’m not overly surprised that Chris Mack and Dan Hurley already have things pointing in the right direction at their respective schools. Smith inherited a team that lost two of its top four scorers, but signed JUCO guard John Knight III in May and brought in Portuguese center Neemias Queta in late August. Those two additions are paying dividends right now behind returning duo Sam Merrill and Dwayne Brown Jr., and Utah State currently boasts the best defensive rebounding rate in the country, with Queta leading the way there. The Aggies may not be able to challenge Nevada for the top spot in the Mountain West, but the program, which hasn’t won 20 games since 2012–13, is definitely ahead of schedule.
Shapiro: Romeo Langford and Indiana took down Louisville 68–67 on Saturday, but that hasn’t clouded my judgment of Chris Mack’s early results with the Cardinals. Louisville was picked to finish 11th in the ACC in the preseason. It now sits at 6–3, with an impressive win over Michigan State on Nov. 27. The Cardinal looked competitive vs. Tennessee and beat Seton Hall. They’ll have a smooth three games before a matinee matchup against Kentucky on Dec. 29. Conference play projects to be grueling, but Mack’s rebuild at Louisville is thus far ahead of schedule.
Caron: Jeff Capel at Pittsburgh. Capel left Duke to take over a terrible Pitt program that Kevin Stallings did no favors for. This is not to say the Panthers look good—by any means—but they still look significantly better than last season. After a hot start, Pitt has lost three of its last four games, although two of those losses came by one point each. There’s clearly still a ton of work to be done to turn things around, but we also have to give Capel some time to bring in his own recruits and really rebuild the program. There’s simply a lack of talent on the team right now and the fact that Pitt, after going 8–24 and 0–18 in ACC play last season, is already at 7–3 in 2018–19 is a nod to what Capel is capable of even given the situation he inherited.
After beating Arizona State, Nevada doesn’t have a single future opponent in the top 50 on kenpom.com. What percentage do you put the Wolf Pack’s chances of entering the NCAA tournament undefeated?
Greene: The algorithms over at kenpom.com, which are much smarter than I, give the Wolfpack a one-in-eight (12.5%) chance, which sounds about right, but I'm going to go a bit lower and say a very precise and scientific... 8.6%. Although Nevada should be firmly favored every time it takes the floor before the NCAAs, the cumulative improbability and the sheer difficulty of taking everyone's best shot every night—plus the attendant pressures of perfection and the variables of being 18-to-23-year-olds juggling 18-to-23-year-old lives—take their toll on even the most talented teams eventually. I think the Wolfpack slip on an off-night somewhere between now and then and emerge stronger for it.
Woo: I’d say 49%. They should do it, but reality bites, and playing teams in your conference twice is a serious challenge—the odds are someone finds a weakness and pokes a hole in the Wolf Pack. I like Nevada, and the Martin twins are literally grown men playing against teenagers on a lot of nights, and Jordan Caroline might actually be their most important player. They are not an expressly great three-point shooting team, and if they’re missing from range, you can keep Caroline off the glass and keep them out of transition, you can keep it close. I would put a percentage at slightly less than likely, but not super unlikely either. A team like Utah State or San Diego State could get it done on a given night.
Meyer: I’ll go 8.26%. Nevada has a ton of talent, but running the table, even with the schedule it has in front of it, will be extremely tricky. The Wolf Pack have a small rotation, so just one injury or foul trouble could potentially cause them big-time problems, and you’d figure that’s an issue they will have to face in a few games this season. Nevada still has road games against top-100 kenpom.com teams Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State, while a trip to The Pit to battle New Mexico is never an easy trip.
Geary: Let’s say 22%. The Wolf Pack’s propensity to start slow could easily burn them, though it would likely take a collectively off night from their top guys. Kenpom.com currently gives Nevada at least a 73% chance of winning each of its remaining games, and it wouldn’t be stunning if it did run the table in the rest of the regular season and Mountain West tournament. But going undefeated, even before the Big Dance, is extremely difficult—even the Gonzaga team that went to the national title game dropped its regular season finale to BYU despite being given a 99% chance of winning and 24-point expected margin. This Mountain West looks better than that WCC did, and road games at Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State in particular may not be easy.
Shapiro: I’ll say 20%. That’s not a shot at Nevada, but rather an acknowledgement of how hard it is to go undefeated. Just 19 teams have entered the NCAA Tournament unbeaten, and just two since 2000. Wichita State’s 35–0 start in 2013–14 is probably most analogous to the Wolf Pack, though the Shockers ran into a buzz saw against Kentucky in the round of 32. Let’s hope Eric Musselman's squad doesn’t face the same luck. Even if Nevada slips before March, don’t be surprised if this is a Final Four team. Four of its five leading scorers are seniors, led by the often-indistinguishable Martin brothers in the frontcourt. Nevada has also earned a boost from Portland transfer Jazz Johnson—a shoo-in for the All-Name team—with the 5’10” point guard zipping his way to the tin at 12.6 points per game. The Wolf Pack’s schedule isn’t difficult, though my money would be on them slipping at some point. Circle Feb. 20 on your calendar, when the Wolf Pack head west to face San Diego State.
Caron: I'm going all in and giving Nevada an 85% chance to enter March Madness without a loss. Barring a big upset, there’s no one in the Mountain West who looks even remotely comparable to the Wolf Pack. Arizona State was their last big test of the season and Nevada took care of the Sun Devils nicely in neutral territory. I leave the 15% to someone like Fresno State or Utah State who has a chance at shaking things up when the Wolf Pack hit the road, but that’s still unlikely.