Kentucky v North Carolina

Kentucky is a flawed team, but does that mean they can’t contend?


We are now 11 games into the college basketball season, but No. 11 Kentucky still appears to be a long way away from being a team capable of winning a national title. The Wildcats are sitting at 8-3 after Saturday’s 82-77 loss to No. 18 North Carolina, with one final chance against Louisville to try and post a marquee non-conference win.

Is it time to be worried about the Wildcats?

This Kentucky basketball team has some major flaws this season, some of which can be corrected and some of which are woven into the fabric of this team.

As good as Willie Cauley-Stein is at defending the rim, the other four players that join him on the floor just don’t seem to be all that good on the defensive side of the ball. Some of it is a lack of desire to keep their man from penetrating. Some of it is an overabundance of gambling for steals. Some of it is the failure to understand help-side rotations.

Simply put: Kentucky is not a good defensive basketball team right now, but that can get better. With those athletes, defense can always get better.

That’s not it.

The Wildcats are some issues on the offensive end of the floor as well. I’ve seen some bemoan the lack of a point guard for the Wildcats, and that’s part of it. The bigger issue is that Kentucky’s three best perimeter players are all guys that are shoot-first scorers that need the ball in their hands to be effective. That’d be fine if they had, say, T.J. McConnell out there to facilitate their offense. But they don’t, which is why their offense too often gets bogged down. On Saturday, the result was that Kentucky’s offense devolved into the Harrison twins going 1-on-1 on every possession.

They also don’t have any perimeter depth. Their three best perimeter players are, more or less, their only three perimeter players. Alex Poythress is not a small forward, but he’s Kentucky’s first wing off the bench. Dominique Hawkins and Jarrod Polson are a great story, but they should be getting spot minutes when Kentucky is in foul trouble, not playing a significant role in UK’s rotation.

That issue isn’t fixable. Neither is Kentucky’s lack of a leader. Who is the guy that settles people down in a timeout? Who takes control offensively in a moment when Kentucky desperately needs to get a bucket? Who is the pulse of the locker room? Who is the guy that refuses to lose, that convinces his teammates that, no matter how dire the circumstances, they’ll find a way to win? Right now, whoever it is isn’t doing a very good job. Kentucky’s body language was awful in the second half on Saturday. That team didn’t look like they believed they could win late in the game. That’s not a good thing.

Consider all of that.

Now add in the fact that Kentucky was playing their first true road game against a team that has already beaten Michigan State and Louisville. Then toss in the foul trouble that the Wildcats were dealing with, and the fact that their best player — Julius Randle — was a non-factor, finishing with 11 points and five boards on 3-for-9 shooting.

Think about all of those problems.

And remember this: Kentucky lost this game by five points. They weren’t run out of the gym, they were slowly overwhelmed by a more experienced team. This wasn’t like last year’s Notre Dame loss.

It’s obvious that all the talk about this Kentucky team being legendary has quickly gone out the window.

But writing this group off as a national title contender at this point is too early.

Syracuse receives mixed news on sanctions appeals

Jim Boeheim
Associated Press
Leave a comment

Wednesday the NCAA made its ruling on two¬†appeals of sanctions made by Syracuse University, with the news being mixed for the men’s basketball program.

On the positive side the NCAA ruled that Syracuse will be docked two scholarships per season for the next four years, as opposed to the original ruling of three. As a result Jim Boeheim’s program only has to account for the loss of eight total scholarships, meaning that they’ll have 11 to fill in each of the next four seasons as opposed to ten.

One scholarship may not seem like a big deal, but in a sport where you only get 13 (when not dealing with sanctions) getting that grant-in-aid back really helps from a recruiting standpoint.

As for the negatives, they both concern Boeheim. Not only has there yet to be a ruling on Boeheim’s appeal of his nine-game suspension that goes into effect when ACC play begins in January (that appeal is being heard separately), but the appeal to reinstate the wins that were vacated as part of the sanctions was denied. As a result Boeheim officially has 868 wins instead of 969 (not counting today’s game against Charlotte).

And with Mike Hopkins set to take over as head coach in 2018, the denial means that college basketball will have to wait quite some time before anyone threatens to join Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in the 1,000 wins club.

While not having the wins officially reinstated does hurt, getting a scholarship back for each of the next four seasons is a bigger deal when it comes to the long-term health of the Syracuse program. Also of great importance will be the ruling regarding Boeheim’s suspension, as a suspended coach is not allowed to have any contact with his players or coaching staff while serving the penalty.

And with the original ruling due to take up half of Syracuse’s league slate, not having Boeheim (or the chance to speak with him) is a big deal when it comes to this current team.

St. John’s forward Kassoum Yakwe cleared by NCAA

Chris Mullin
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Leave a comment

St. John’s forward Kassoum Yakwe has been cleared by the NCAA to play this season and will be eligible immediately, the school announced on Wednesday.

Yakwe is a 6-foot-8 forward that reclassified and enrolled at St. John’s this fall. He attended the same high school as Kansas forward Cheick Diallo, who was also cleared by the NCAA to play today.

St. John’s played in the Maui Invitational this week, and Yakwe did not take part. His first game with the Johnnies will be on Dec. 2nd against Fordham if the program plans to play his this season.

The question that must be asked, however, is whether or not he will suit up or simply redshirt. The Johnnies are in the midst of a serious rebuild and will be without their other elite recruit this season, Marcus Lovett. Lovett was ruled a partial qualifier. Would it make sense to burn a year of eligibility on what make amount to a wasted season, or will head coach Chris Mullin opt to save that year for down the road?