How Kentucky Became Better Than The Sum Of Its Parts
In an NCAA Tournament filled with unlikely stories, none is more unlikely than John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats becoming a Cinderella. After bringing in one of the most heralded recruiting classes of all-time and being projected to go 40-0, Kentucky stumbled through the regular season, sliding from No. 1 all the way to an 8 seed. They can legitimately play the no one believed in us card - they were underdogs against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.
Their run through the Midwest bracket might be the best coaching job Calipari has done in his five seasons at Lexington. He’s made all the right moves - playing the match-up game perfectly and not missing a beat when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an ankle injury. His team has grown up at the right time and they have as good a chance as any of cutting down the nets in Dallas this weekend. Instead of losing as individuals, Kentucky has been winning as a team.
That’s been the most impressive part of what the Wildcats have done - for all the individual hype they have received this season, none of their guys are playing all that well in March. Different guys have stepped up in each game. The Harrisons combined for 29 points on 12-22 shooting against Wichita State, Dakari Johnson had 15 points and 6 rebounds on 7-10 shooting against Louisville and Julius Randle went for 16 points and 11 rebounds against Michigan.
Over the last three games, though, none has been all that consistent. After their breakout game against the Shockers, the Harrisons fell back to Earth in the second weekend. Against Louisville and the pressure of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, they went 7-24 from the field, never really getting into a rhythm on the offensive end of the floor. Before Aaron hit the game-winning three against Michigan, the two had combined to go 6-19 while coughing up the ball five times.
Even Randle, who has been averaging a double-double in the Tourney, has struggled with his offensive efficiency, going 5-for-11 against Louisville and 7-for-16 against Michigan. His best all-around game came against Wichita, who made a determined effort to pack the paint and force Kentucky to beat them from the perimeter. Instead of forcing the ball through double teams, Randle read the defense and made the right play, handing out a career-high six assists.
Coming into each game, Calipari hasn’t known what he’s going to get from most of his key players. James Young was a no-show against Louisville, going 3-for-8 from the floor and fouling out in 22 minutes. Johnson wasn’t much of a factor against a much smaller Wichita team, with 3 points and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes. Rather than 2-3 guys emerging as stars, everyone on Kentucky has shared the burden, with each member of their rotation coming up big at a different time.
Randle has led the team in rebounding in each game, but it’s been a different guy helping him each night. Young had 8 against Wichita State, Johnson chipped in six against Louisville and Marcus Lee came out of nowhere to grab eight against Michigan. Lee is the perfect example of the Wildcats depth - after hardly playing for most of the season, he took advantage of Cauley-Stein’s injury to explode for 10 points and eight rebounds on 5-7 shooting in only 15 minutes on Sunday.
That’s one of the benefits of having an 8-man rotation comprised entirely of McDonald’s All-Americans. Lee and Alex Poythress, the two big men who came off their bench against Michigan, could start for almost any team in the country. Kentucky has more size than most NBA teams. The only guys without a chance at the next level are the two reserve guards - Dominique Hawkins and Jarrod Polson - who get spot minutes behind Young and the Harrisons.
Where that becomes a problem is projecting all these guys to the next level, since they are playing with so much talent around them in Lexington. It’s the same reason why so many USC guys bust out in the NFL - it’s hard to know who is carrying whom when everyone is a prospect. Looking back on it, would Marquis Teague have been a first round pick anywhere else but Kentucky? He averaged 10 points and five assists a game on 41 percent shooting in college.
Randle is the one sure-fire lottery pick on the Wildcats' roster and he has plenty of holes in his game. With only a 6’11 wingspan, he has difficulty finishing over length inside, a problem which will only be magnified at the NBA level. His jumper is fairly inconsistent too, which is why he has gone through stretches in the Tourney where he can’t buy a basket. And while his improving floor game gives him some upside, his inability to protect the rim puts a cap on his NBA ceiling.
Coming into the season, many were calling Young the best pro prospect on the Kentucky roster. He has good size for a SG at 6’6 215, but he doesn’t have an elite first step and and he shoots only 41 percent from the field. Young should be a solid 3-and-D wing at the next level, but if I’m taking a perimeter player in the lottery, I want someone who makes his teammates better. This season Young is averaging more turnovers (1.9) than assists (1.7) per game.
Cauley-Stein will likely be a Top 15 pick if his ankle injury isn’t serious, but that’s based purely on potential at this point in his career. While he can block shots, rebound and finish around the rim, he’s a lost cause on offense and he shoots 48 percent from the free-throw line. Their other big men - Lee, Poythress and Johnson - all have the size and athletic ability to play in the NBA, but it’s hard to project them right now given their lack of consistent playing time.
Which brings us to the Harrisons, the most polarizing prospects on this year’s team. They do a good job of using their size (6’6 205) to bully smaller guards, but they are the farthest thing from burners. They have a tough time staying in front of guys and neither is a consistent shooter or decision-maker. I would have trouble taking an unathletic guard with a PER of 17.6 (Aaron) or 12.6 (Andrew) in the first-round, regardless of how many Tourney games they won.
Over the last two weeks, Kentucky has been a team better than the sum of its parts. It has been an amazing run with classic finishes against Wichita State, Michigan and Louisville. That’s what makes March so great - anything can happen. Aaron Harrison didn’t have a better look on Sunday than Fred Van Vleet did the week before. If an NBA team makes a draft decision based on whether those shots went in or out, they are missing the whole point of the NCAA Tournament.