Evansville pulled off a stunning upset of No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night as the Purple Aces came away with a 67-64 non-conference win.
Picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll, Evansville and head coach Walter McCarty rolled into Rupp and scored one of the most surprising early-season college hoops upsets in recent memory. It’s incredibly rare to see a No. 1 team lose at home to an unranked opponent — particularly this early in the season.
Playing with a shocking lack of energy for loose balls and allowing 11 offensive rebounds, this loss is perhaps the most surprising upset of the John Calipari era at Kentucky. Despite a 25-point spread in some places, the Purple Aces soundly outplayed the Wildcats in multiple facets of the game. A team with almost zero preseason expectations showed minimal fear despite Kentucky’s No. 1 ranking and numerous McDonald’s All-Americans.
K.J. Riley paced Evansville with 18 points while former top-100 prospect Sam Cunliffe surged out of the gate with a strong first half to finish with 17 points. The Purple Aces ran balanced offense and did a good job of establishing the shots they were looking for. In only his second season of coaching, this win could go down as McCarty’s signature win in his coaching career. How many coaches beat the No. 1 team on the road with a mid-major team — particularly when that team is your alma mater? And at 4-3 against the No. 1 team in the country over the last 20 years, the Missouri Valley Conference continues to show why bigger conferences hate to play them at any point during the regular season.
Most importantly for the national college hoops landscape, however, is this very concerning overall effort from Kentucky.
A week after taking down No. 1 Michigan State in a season-opening win at the Champions Classic, this looked like a completely different Wildcats team than we saw in Madison Square Garden. We’re used to seeing Calipari coach freshmen-laden groups still trying to figure each other out. But we rarely see a Kentucky team still searching for its true go-to player.
Tyrese Maxey (15 points) is still trying to establish himself as that go-to offensive presence. But it didn’t always come naturally for both Maxey, or Kentucky’s offense, when he tried to take over on Tuesday. It didn’t help Maxey that the Wildcats had almost zero inside scoring presence against an underwhelming mid-major frontcourt. Even without E.J. Montgomery, this is the type of game where Nick Richards and Nate Sestina should be counted on for production but Evansville limited them to a combined 15 points on only 10 shots.
The outside shooting for Kentucky (4-for-17 from three) was dreadful. And point guard play was also a problem. Ashton Hagans finished with three points and four turnovers on 1-for-8 shooting as this might go down as the worst game of his college career.
This loss shows that Kentucky still has to figure out where its best looks will come from late in close games on offense. And a young team is also trying to adapt to playing with each other amid huge national expectations. Past Kentucky teams have featured dominant interior scorers, shot-creating wings and downhill guards who can get to the rim. This Wildcats team still has the talent to live up to the No. 1 status by the end of the season. We just don’t know if they have the true No. 1 guy to get there if they don’t play perfect in every other facet.
Kentucky has a month until they face another power-conference opponent when they battle Georgia Tech on Dec. 14. That gives them time to figure out some glaring issues before conference play begins but it also shows that college basketball is lacking a dominant team at this point in the season.