CHICAGO – The most interesting part of Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas came after the game, in the press conference, as the Wildcats publicly projected an air of satisfaction.
John Calipari, Kevin Knox, they spoke as if hanging with Kansas, as if pushing the No. 4 team in the country, a team with 6.5 scholarship players available on Tuesday night, was a moral victory.
And no one batted an eye.
Kentucky had struggled in their season-opening win over Utah Valley, trailing by as much as 12 points early in the second half before coming alive and winning by ten. They only beat Vermont by four, as the Catamounts slowly and methodically chipped away at a Kentucky lead in the second half, missing two shots to tie the game in the final minute.
It wasn’t a surprise, not with the overwhelming amount of youth on the Kentucky roster and the simple fact that none of those youngsters fall into the same class as Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. We all knew that Kentucky was going to go through growing pains this season, that the product they put on the floor in March will be markedly different than the one we’ve seen through the first week of the season, but it is still odd to see a program the caliber of Kentucky qualifying a loss with ‘we played hard.’
“We were just fighting. I give it to my teammates. We really fought,” Kevin Knox, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class, said. “A lot of people ha us losing this game by 20, 30 points, but we said before the game that we’re not having it. They’re a veteran team, we’re a real young team. A lot of people thought they’d have the advantage, but tonight we really fought our butts off. We played really hard in the second half, and we could have won the game. We only lost by four points.”
I couldn’t agree with that statement more, and there were a lot of positives to take out of that game.
And it may have answered one of the two biggest questions hanging over the program this season: Who is Kentucky’s closer? Who is Kentucky’s go-to guy?
Kevin Knox, or so it seems.
Knox struggled through the first two games of the season. He was 6-for-23 from the floor, he was 2-for-8 from three and he was averaging 11.5 points. Against Kansas, however, Knox was terrific, finishing with 20 points, banging how three threes and showing off a perimeter game that I wasn’t sure that he had in his arsenal yet; he made a couple pull-ups and he was able to create offense off of the dribble.
He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I left the United Center feeling much better about where Kentucky stands this season than I did entering.
“I still don’t know how we’re going to play late in a close game,” head coach John Calipari said, adding that “late in the game, that’s not on those kids. We haven’t worked on late-game situations.”
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I need to put these kids into those situations. I need to see who can make a shot, who can make a free throw. You can only learn about your team in games like this.”
They’ll get there eventually.
The bigger concern is at the point guard spot. Kentucky has two on their roster this season, and neither of them appear to be the answer. Quade Green, who has started the last two games after coming off the bench, is better on the offensive end of the floor but struggles defensively. Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes ate him up in the second half of Kentucky’s win. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defender, but when he’s on the floor and Green isn’t, Kentucky’s only effective means of generating offense comes in transition or on the offensive glass. Against Kansas, Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over six times.
The way Calipari wants to run his program is clear: Go get one of the best incoming freshman point guards to run his team. Whether it’s Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose or John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or Marquis Teague, the trend is clear. This year, he didn’t get a player on that level. Green and Gilgeous-Alexander both fall in that second tier of point guard, and the only other year where that was the case for Cal was back in 2012-13, when N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow ran the show and Kentucky ended up in the NIT.
I don’t think the Wildcats are in danger of repeating that season, particularly if Knox keeps growing into that go-to guy role. They’re still going to be very good defensively and they’re still going big enough to get to dominate the glass on most nights, which should help them mitigate the fact that their perimeter shooting is not quite where it needs to be.
But the difference between Kentucky being good and Kentucky genuinely being considered among the nation’s best teams is at the point, and unless Calipari can find a way to fuse Green’s ability on the offensive end of the floor with Gilgeous-Alexander’s skill as a defender, I’m not quite sure what the answer is going to be.