For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.
On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.
So things have been better in Lexington.
But panicking over anything would be silly right now.
Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.
What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.
One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”
Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.
And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:
- E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
- Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
- Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
- Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
- Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
- Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.
Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.
That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.
But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.
The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.
Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.
At least right now. That’s the important part here.
Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.
So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.
Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.
We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.
They are taking their lumps.
And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.