NCAAB
December 8, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

John Calipari Won't Be Able to Fix This Year's Kentucky Wildcats

It's still 2020 for another three weeks, so there are still plenty of crazy things that could still happen. 

Take the latest victims of the madness that is 2020: Kentucky basketball.

John Calipari’s Wildcats are 1-3 at the start of the year and have dropped out of all of the major top-25 polls, which is a rare occurrence in Lexington.

A 12-point loss to Richmond was a little puzzling but could be rationalized based on the Spiders being a strong mid-major. A close loss to Kansas was disappointing but reasonable given Kentucky’s typically youthful roster. But a 79-62 loss to a Georgia Tech team that was picked to finish 9th in the ACC and started the season with losses to Georgia State and Mercer is a reason to sound the alarm.

It’s clear that something isn’t right with this year’s Kentucky team.

Of course, it’s been part of Calipari’s M.O. with the Wildcats to have some struggles early in the season. That’s what Calipari does; he takes young teams that are a little rough around the edges in November and December and transforms them into a talented and coherent squad that is typically playing its best basketball in March. However, in a season that we know will be unlike any other we’ve seen before, we can’t take for granted that Calipari will be able to do the same.

In fact, here’s why Calipari won’t be able to fix this Kentucky team.

Point Guard Play

For years, guard play has been the driving force in college basketball, especially in March. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, a lack of quality point guard play has been the cause of their issues early in the season.

Turnovers have been the bane of Kentucky’s existence through four games. They committed 21 against Richmond, 16 against Kansas and 21 more against Georgia Tech. To make matters worse, their assist total was in the single digits against Richmond and Kansas before improving against Georgia Tech. Through four games, the Wildcats have 47 assists and 73 turnovers, which is beyond abysmal for any level of basketball.

Those poor numbers point out the obvious fact that Kentucky doesn’t have a true point guard on the roster. Freshman Devin Askew is more of a combo guard and one who has looked overmatched thus far. Take away the win against Morehead State and Askew has 12 points, nine turnovers and four assists in three games in 87 minutes of action. 

Meanwhile, Creighton transfer Davion Mintz is coming off the bench and being forced to share the point guard responsibilities with Askew. If nothing else, Mintz has managed to accumulate more assists than turnovers. But he’s not a pure point guard and needs to be playing off the ball if the Wildcats are going to get the most out of him. 

Unfortunately for Calipari, his options at point guard are limited beyond Askew and Mintz. Unless Askew, who should still be a high school senior, can develop in a hurry, the Wildcats have little choice but to ask Mintz to hold down the point. As a senior who accrued plenty of game experience at Creighton, he figures to be the best option. But just because he’s the best option doesn’t mean he’s a good option.

Without a true point guard, it’ll be tough for the Wildcats to get the most out of their other players. More importantly, the turnover issues that have plagued them early in the season are destined to continue all season. 

Shooting Woes

Amid all of the turnovers, it’s been easy to miss the fact that Kentucky has been dreadful shooting the ball from the perimeter. To be fair, the Wildcats were better against Georgia Tech, although it didn’t exactly help them win. More importantly, they missed all 10 three-point attempts against Richmond and shot 14% from beyond the arc against Kansas. Through four games, Kentucky is shooting an abysmal 25% from the perimeter.

Granted, it’s possible, if not likely, that the Wildcats started the season in a shooting slump and will be able to snap out of it. But that’s far from a guarantee on a team that’s largely made up of freshmen. Even capable long-range shooters struggle as freshmen because of the sudden increase in defensive intensity from opposing teams. The lone exception could be Mintz, who shot 34.7% from beyond the arc two years ago at Creighton. However, matching that percentage could be difficult if he’s handling the point rather than playing off the ball.

Much like Kentucky’s point guard woes, poor shooting isn’t something that Calipari is likely to fix. Keep in mind the Wildcats have never shot better than 32.4% from the three-point line during Calipari’s tenure in Lexington.

During the past decade, long-range shooting has become more important in college basketball. But while other programs have become better in this regard, the Wildcats have only grown worse. The early returns indicate that this could one of Kentucky’s worst shooting teams under Calipari.

Barring a sudden change, this is another aspect of the game where the Wildcats will be worse than most of the teams they play.

An Empty Bench

Another area where Calipari is likely to struggle to work his magic is Kentucky’s bench. Outside of Mintz, the Wildcats have received little production from the bench. Jacob Toppin has contributed the most out of anyone on the bench outside of Mintz. But he only made modest contributions off Rhode Island’s bench last year, so it’s unlikely he becomes an impact bench player for Kentucky. Meanwhile, freshmen Lance Ware, Cam’Ron Fletcher and Dontaie Allen have yet to show that they are ready to play against quality competition.

The saving grace for Kentucky is that Keion Brooks should be ready to return from injury by early January. Of course, it remains to be seen if he can take a significant step forward after averaging just 4.5 points last season. But even if Brooks makes an immediate impact upon his return and Toppin carves out a role, the Wildcats will have at most an eight-man rotation. That doesn’t leave Calipari with much in-game flexibility or a lot of depth if there’s an injury or players sidelined by COVID-19.

COVID-Related Limitations

Speaking of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s one more thing that’s going to make Calipari’s task of turning Kentucky around that much more difficult. While every coach and team must find a way to play through the ongoing pandemic, a young team like Kentucky faces a greater challenge than more veteran squads.

For starters, there were no preseason games and fewer low-pressure non-conference games against what some might call “cupcakes” for Kentucky’s contingent of freshmen to get their feet wet. Thus, the learning curve becomes even steeper for the young Wildcats.

Moreover, Calipari has mentioned how coaching has changed in a world that required social distancing. Specifically, Calipari has mentioned that a lack of face-to-face contact with a head coach is more detrimental for young players. Given Calipari’s coaching style, one can understand how that would hinder his ability to coach and influence his players more than his less temperamental peers.

With that in mind, the toughness, intensity and even the defensive prowess of Kentucky, all of which have been questionable early in the season, may not improve as much during the course of the season.

The Long Road Ahead

Last but not least, Kentucky’s schedule isn’t going to make it easy for the Wildcats to get their issues sorted out. Before the start of SEC play on Dec. 29, Kentucky has just four games, three of which will come against Notre Dame, UCLA and Louisville, all power-conference teams that could give the Cats trouble based on their losses to Richmond, Kansas and Georgia Tech.

The SEC season isn’t likely to be a cakewalk, either. Tennessee, not Kentucky, is the preseason favorite according to many pundits. The likes of Florida, Auburn and Alabama bring back veteran teams that are poised to make some noise this season. LSU is also an intriguing wild card that could challenge for the conference title. Even teams in the bottom half of the SEC could offer a greater challenge to the Wildcats than they’re accustomed to. This means fewer opportunities for Kentucky to score easy wins that help their young players adjust to the college level and gain confidence.

All things considered, the Wildcats have had too many of their flaws exposed early in the season. Not only is there less time this season for Calipari to fix those issues, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll be able to fix them at all. An abundance of turnovers, poor perimeter shooting and the lack of a true point guard are all systematic issues that must be overcome rather than fixed. 

Moreover, a lack of depth, changes to the way teams can practice during the pandemic and a challenging schedule ahead make it even more unlikely that Calipari will be able to find answers for all of the questions Kentucky has created with three straight losses.

In the end, this isn’t a typical season and this won’t be a typical Kentucky team. The Wildcats have the talent to be a contender in the SEC and an NCAA Tournament team. But even Calipari won’t be able to turn this Kentucky team into a team to fear come March.

Photo: Getty Images