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Kentucky’s got the talent, but here’s why they will not win a title this year

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Back in December, when Kentucky got dropped by North Carolina on their visit to Chapel Hill, I wrote this column and this sidebar taking stock of Kentucky’s status and potential this season.

I think it’s worth revisiting now. If you don’t feel like reading through 1,000 words of two month-old writing, here’s a summary of what I wrote:

  • Kentucky’s three best perimeter players — Aaron and Andrew Harrison and James Young — are all shoot-first scorers. There is no point guard and there is no distributor.
  • There is also no perimeter depth. Alex Poythress is not a small forward, and Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins should not be getting playing time on this team.
  • Outside of Willie Cauley-Stein, there is no one on this team that is a good defender.
  • Kentucky doesn’t have any leadership. There is no vocal leader on that roster. The players that lead by example do it with awful body language and effort.

I think it’s safe to say that after last night’s drubbing — the final score of 87-82 doesn’t do justice to the beatdown that Kentucky took — at LSU, most of those points have been reinforced.

The bottom-line is this: last season, the Wildcats were a flawed basketball team even before they lost Nerlens Noel to the knee injury. The pieces just didn’t fit together well, Ryan Harrow wasn’t ready to run a team facing the scrutiny of a program like Kentucky and, quite frankly, that team just wasn’t talented enough.

This team is.

I think it’s inarguable at this point that we overrated the Harrison twins, particularly Andrew’s ability to run the point. But Julius Randle has been as good as advertised, Willie Cauley-Stein had been playing his role very well until the last two weeks, James Young can get buckets and Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson finally seem to be turning a corner.

In other words, this issue with this team isn’t the talent on the roster. The issue is what that talent is missing.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Kentucky got punked last night. LSU came out and punched them in the mouth to start the game and to start the second half, and the Wildcats didn’t have what it took to complete a comeback.

Simply put, the Wildcats were atrocious defensively last night.

Ah. Tro. Shuss.

Johnny O’Bryant got position anywhere he wanted it in the paint, post-doubles and help-side rotations were slow, and LSU was able to get to the rim on straight-line drives whenever they decided to put the ball on the floor. That never would have happened with the 2012 National Title team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t have allowed it. Darius Miller wouldn’t have allowed it. None of those guys would have allowed it.

Instead of coming together and fighting through what was clearly an off-night, Kentucky looked like they splintered. There were the confused looks after every defensive breakdown. There was Cauley-Stein yelling at Kenny Payne on the bench. There was John Calipari, clearly frustrated, shoving one of the Harrisons to try to get him to move into the right position. Their body language was simply awful, to the point where it looked like those guys don’t even like each other.

And that’s only what came through on TV.

I can’t even imagine how bad it looked in person.

That is why I think we can write Kentucky off as a national title contender. It’s not because they lack a point guard; running an offense through Randle and allowing their three perimeter players to create when teams are forced to double him could work. It’s not because they’re mediocre defensively, because they have the athletes to improve on that end if they really wanted to. It’s not because they lack perimeter depth or because they don’t have any role players.

They have the talent to make up for that.

What their talent can’t make up for is the fact that this group does not appear to have the leadership or the mental toughness to come together and play through adversity.

You need to win six straight games against good teams to win a national title. At some point, Kentucky will get burned.

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.