Three days before Kentucky’s scheduled season opener, the Wildcats had what coach John Calipari called “our worst scrimmage since I’ve been the coach [at Kentucky].”
“I’ve got both feet and hands on the panic button right now,” Calipari recalled telling his wife following that scrimmage.
While a decisive 86–55 victory over Morehead State may have briefly calmed Big Blue Nation’s nerves, three straight losses to Richmond, Kansas and Georgia Tech has left the college basketball world asking one question: What’s wrong with Kentucky? With 10 newcomers and just one player on the roster who played in a game for the Wildcats last season, some early bumps were to be expected. But after the program’s worst start since 2000, it’s hard not to wonder whether Calipari can right the ship.
The most obvious problem for Kentucky right now is an inability to take care of the basketball. Per KenPom, the Wildcats have turned the ball over on a ghastly 25.4% of their offensive possessions, a mark that ranks 265th out of the 292 teams who have played at least one game this season. Those giveaways have been costly: Georgia Tech scored 33 points off 21 UK turnovers, while Richmond scored 22 off 21 Kentucky miscues.
“Guys are trying to make the hardest play they can make,” Calipari said following the Georgia Tech loss. “Just make easy plays and attack.”
While the turnover troubles have been evident across the entire Kentucky roster, freshman point guard Devin Askew has really struggled. The reclassified four-star recruit has turned it over nine times in the three UK losses compared to just four assists. Beyond the turnovers, Askew simply hasn’t looked comfortable running the offense and has struggled to create separation off the bounce. Askew is the only true floor general on the Kentucky roster, but right now he isn’t playing at a high enough level for the Wildcats to win games. A lineup switch to increase top-10 recruit Terrence Clarke’s ball-handling responsibilities next to another experienced guard in Creighton grad transfer Davion Mintz might be necessary to spark this offensive attack.
Without secret scrimmages or preseason exhibitions to test different lineups, Calipari seems to be struggling to find the right combinations. One central issue is figuring out what to do with his two talented big men in Isaiah Jackson and Olivier Sarr. Jackson and Sarr are two of Kentucky’s five best players right now, but playing two non-shooters together has hurt the team’s spacing on the offensive end. Playing two true bigs has clogged the lane for drives by Clarke and Askew, and guys like Mintz and five-star wing shooter Brandon Boston haven’t made opponents pay yet from deep. The Wildcats were 0–10 from three against Richmond and 3–21 against Kansas, numbers that simply won’t cut it to win at a high level. Boston is too good a shooter to keep shooting 17% from beyond the arc, but Calipari could open up the floor by platooning Sarr and Jackson at the center position. However, until sophomore PF Keion Brooks returns from a preseason calf injury, options at power forward are limited.
Perhaps most concerning right now for Kentucky is the lack of fight it showed in the loss to Georgia Tech. Losing to an experienced team on a neutral court is not the end of the world, but looking flat and listless as you get pounded into submission by a team that was coming off losses to Georgia State and Mercer is a really bad sign. In a season with few to no fans in the stands, energy from the bench is even more important than normal, yet the Wildcat sideline was full of hung heads and seated players.
“We got out-toughed,” Calipari said.
ESPN college basketball analyst and former Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg went further, describing the Wildcats as “not competitive” and “not tough enough” to be a good basketball team right now.
So can one of college basketball’s perennial powerhouses turn this around? With nonconference games against Notre Dame, UCLA, and Louisville still on the schedule, the road doesn’t get any easier. But there’s certainly history of the Wildcats getting things going after slow starts: Just last year, UK lost to Evansville and got blown out by Utah during nonconference play, but ended up winning the SEC with a 15–3 conference mark.
The work to turn this season around begins this week during Kentucky’s annual in-season camp, which Calipari announced on Twitter on Monday. The team will have three sessions a day, with the focus on toughness and turnovers.
“Sometimes teams have to hit rock bottom before they listen, especially if they are immature,” Calipari said. “I’m not afraid of that.”
This 1–3 start certainly feels like rock bottom. Will the listening begin? And will wins follow? If not, it could be a very long season in Lexington.