College Basketball Mailbag: What's Wrong With Kentucky?

Answering your questions about Kentucky's struggles, Maryland's ceiling, Indiana's tournament chances and Myles Powell's draft stock.
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This week, we called for your college hoops questions. In what may become a semi-regular occurrence, we answered.

Have questions you want answered? Email Jeremy at sifrontoffice@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter @JeremyWoo.

How much stock should we put into Kentucky’s early struggles?

If this feels like an annual discussion topic to you, you’re not wrong: never in the John Calipari era has Kentucky played its best basketball in November. We won’t have to talk about last week’s loss to Evansville at Rupp Arena forever, nor will history remember Monday’s generally lackluster follow-up game at home against Utah Valley, due to the fact the Wildcats won, 82–74. Some of the structural issues that we thought might plague Kentucky on paper have reared their heads, though, and at this point, those two iffy showings probably say more about this group than the opening-night win over Michigan State does. And it’s certainly possible that starting the season by toppling the No. 1 team placed a young team on its high horse, so a very public humbling might end up being the best thing for them in the long run.

If there’s an issue that’s easy to pinpoint right now, it’s a roster-wide lack of consistent shot creation. Most of that responsibility has fallen on freshman Tyrese Maxey, who’s not fully ready to carry all that weight on a nightly basis, and backcourt-mate Ashton Hagans, who adds a whole lot of value on the defensive end but continues to struggle shooting the three in his second season. That isn’t just his problem, either—the Wildcats on whole are making just 21.3% of their treys. These issues are connected: Kentucky isn’t a team full of sharpshooters, but it also isn't quite that bad, and improved guard play and ball movement going forward as the group settles in together should lead to consistent and more open shots.

Their best three-point shooter is another freshman, Johnny Juzang, who’s played just 32.5% of minutes through four games but may wind up earning a bigger place in the rotation out of pure necessity if his shot starts falling. On the whole, connectivity just isn’t there yet, and if Maxey still has to just go get a bucket every other possession in tight games come February, that becomes a real big-picture concern. E.J. Montgomery has been injured, which should add an inside-out dimension to the attack, but expecting a savior to emerge would be wishful thinking. Kentucky’s freshman-heavy supporting cast will have to help manufacture points when Hagans and Maxey are struggling to create. Historically, Calipari’s teams go through a few transformations per season, and I don’t expect this to be any different—for better or worse.

The good news is that this group still inherently boasts serious potential on the defensive end, and as they continue to jell, the hope would be that Kentucky starts to really thrive in transition and impose pace on the opposition. With Hagans and Maxey capable of applying high ball pressure and the pairing of Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks at forward, Calipari should be able to roll out menacing, athletic lineups and focus on scrambling opponents and turning mistakes into transition opportunities (read: layups and open threes). It’s not rocket science, but if the shooting struggles persists all season, playing as fast as possible should be to the Wildcats’ advantage. Their non-conference schedule doesn’t get menacing until mid-December, when they’ll face Utah and Ohio State in Vegas ahead of the annual Louisville rivalry game on Dec. 28. If Kentucky hasn’t ironed some things out by then, I’ll start worrying for real.

Obviously it’s early and they haven’t been tested, but thoughts on Maryland’s ceiling?

From a personnel perspective, the Terps boast as much talent as anyone in the Big Ten, and so far they’ve gotten results from a group that’s heavy on returning talent. At this point, Jalen Smith can be relied upon for production, and even if it’s not flashy, that’s meaningful with Bruno Fernando off to the NBA. The biggest positive development at Maryland is that fellow sophomore Aaron Wiggins appears to have made a mini-leap of his own and is finding ways to impact games in multiple ways. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him put together an All Big-Ten type season as he starts to shoot better, given what he brings as a perimeter defender and much-improved decision-maker with ball in hand.

Still, I suspect Maryland’s real fate will again be tied to how well point guard Anthony Cowan handles pressure situations—an area that has not always been his strength. Cowan, a four-year starter, has seen plenty by now, and his playmaking and ability to penetrate defenses is critical on a team that otherwise lacks a degree of creativity. But his lack of size has at times been prohibitive, as he’s a 45.8% career shooter on two-point attempts despite shooting a respectable 35% from three.

While Cowan is one of the better guards in the Big Ten, part of leading a team as a senior is knowing your own limitations, and there are going to be situations where teams turn up the pressure and force him to make choices late in close games. The Terps can lean on Eric Ayala to help distribute and take some pressure off, but I suspect this team goes as far as Cowan takes them. Best-case, they can win the Big Ten. Worst-case, 20-ish wins seems doable, but a third straight year with double-digit losses does raise some questions. The reality likely falls somewhere in the middle, but suffice it to say I’d expect Maryland to at least be playing meaningful games all year long.

Myles Powell NBA draft stock

Where does Myles Powell stand as an NBA prospect, especially after last week’s performance against Michigan State?

Powell’s gritty 37-point showing in a three-point loss to the Spartans—all while managing an ankle injury—certainly will stand as a key reference point when NBA teams review his case at the end of the season. He likely would not have been drafted last season unless he agreed to team-friendly terms on some type of second-round deal, as evidenced by the fact he’s back in college. He’s a prolific scorer, but doesn’t fit the traditional NBA profile, as he stood just 5’11” barefoot during measurements at the G League Elite Camp in the spring. At the college level, Powell's ability to drain threes off of movement and penchant for big shots plays up big-time. To succeed in the NBA, he will have to continue proving he can be a prolific degree-of-difficulty shooter from beyond the arc, at minimum. The size factor will be an impediment, and it’s hard to guarantee he gets drafted, particularly this early. But with his work ethic and a potentially elite skill, at the very least, Powell should end up with a real opportunity in camp somewhere.

After a 5–0 start, even against an easy schedule, do you think Indiana can return to the Big Dance?

I’ll preface this with the fact I have not seen a ton of Indiana this season, but I also don’t think it’s out of the question—the Big Ten’s middle of the pack is far from clearly defined, and teams like Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois certainly look beatable. This is a more experienced group that can be more than the sum of its parts, particularly if Trayce Jackson-Davis can be this impactful defensively all season—if the stops Indiana has been able to consistently get thus far translate against better competition, it’s a big development. Last year, the Hoosiers were almost over-reliant on Romeo Langford, to varying results. They don’t have that luxury this time around, and once Archie Miller settles on his best eight or nine guys, we’ll get a better sense of how much progress they’ve really made.