This could be the most mystifying, most hard-to-predict of all John Calipari’s Kentucky teams.
It hasn’t shown the greatness of what I consider Cal’s three “great” UK teams: the 2010 “John Wall team” that was far better than its sudden Elite Eight exit; the 2012 “Anthony Davis team” that did it all; and the 2015 “Platoon team,” probably the best college team never to win the national championship.
Right now, this bunch is being compared to the two Final Four teams that found their legs during the NCAA tournament: the 2011 “Brandon Knight team” and the 2014 “Aaron Harrison team.”
The 2011 team was ranked 20th in the country going into the SEC tournament with a record of 22-8, 10-6 in conference. Knight was an outstanding, unflappable floor general and a steady scorer. DeAndre Liggins matured into an aggressive on-ball defensive force. Josh Harrellson became an effective down-low presence. Terrence Jones also grew into a force on both ends of the court. And Darius Miller and Doron Lamb gave the team its long-range shooting. Lamb hit 49 percent of his three-point shots, Miller 44.
The 2014 team was ranked 25th in the country going into the conference tourney, with a record of 22-9 (a far cry from the 40-0 that many had predicted for it). It had closed out the regular season with a 19-point loss to Florida, the nation’s top-ranked team. But its one-point loss to the Gators in the tournament final was a preview of things to come.
I called it “the Aaron Harrison team” because of the freshman’s unforgettable shooting heroics. But it was really the inside presence of Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein (before he got hurt in the Louisville game) that powered this team’s tournament success.
Okay, so where does this 2017 version stand? At 26-5, ranked ninth last week in the country, it’s well ahead of its predecessors. It has what neither of those previous teams had: an explosive, game-changing scorer. But Malik Monk has been up and down, in and out. Many teams have bowed out of the tournament over the years when their top scorer couldn’t find his shot.
Bam Adebayo seems to have grown into a dominating inside presence. He has also learned how to stay out of foul trouble, though that’s always an unpredictable area once referees start blowing their whistles at this most important time of the year.
But is Bam alone? Is there enough inside support from Wenyan Gabriel, Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries?
As Bam has grown, De’Aaron Fox seems to have receded. (Is the slender guard worn out by the longer, more-intense, college season?) His once-magical drives to the hoop are too often resulting in turnovers or shots that roll off the rim or hit the underside of the backboard.
Still, would I rather have Fox than nearly any other point guard in the nation? Absolutely. Take him lightly at your peril, as Texas A&M learned most recently.
What about the rest of the roster? Cal goes out of his way to praise Gabriel by name, but I fail to see what he’s bringing to the effort. At first glance, Willis still seems fated to gain three at one end, give up two at the other. But I think this is an outdated formulation. Willis’ offense is only occasionally there, but his rebounding and shot-blocking have been solid and, as far as I can tell, his defense is no worse than a lot of other big men around the country. He certainly seems to be working at it.
Dominique Hawkins brings energy and smarts into the game. Sixth men are often praised for their instant scoring, but his value is far more apparent blending into the team effort.
And then there’s Isaiah Briscoe. Briscoe’s legend will be formed by what happens in the next few weeks. Another successful UK run and he’ll be lauded as a bulldog competitor who battled on the boards (though he can barely jump), who refused to succumb, who rallied the freshmen to dig in. An unsuccessful run and he’ll be charged with slowing up the offense, single-mindedly taking heedless trips into the paint and unreliable at both the three-point and free-throw lines.
There’s much for BBN to be hopeful about this year. An on-fire Monk could produce another long run into the tournament – perhaps all the way. I’m not entirely sure the sum of the individual parts leads to another Final Four appearance. But, as we’ve seen, the unexpected rolls out only once the ball is in the air. VT