Defending champ Kentucky faces identity crisis
by Kyle Tucker, USA TODAY Sports
LEXINGTON, KY. — If the Kentucky basketball team has seemed unsteady this season, consider the circumstances.
Point guard Ryan Harrow vanished for four early games — for reasons never fully explained — then dazzled upon his return before fading of late.
Center Willie Cauley-Stein sat out four games after a “minor procedure” on his left knee.
Small forward Alex Poythress was “a beast” for four games and then he wasn’t — and now, in spurts, is again.
Power forward Kyle Wiltjer was a 3-point threat, then a defensive liability, and now a post-up presence. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin was a scoring machine while handling Harrow’s duties, but an inconsistent finisher ever since sliding back off the ball.
So who are these Wildcats? How could they possibly know?
“We’ve been in flux the whole year,” coach John Calipari said. “We have not settled into, ‘OK, here’s who we are.’ We’re playing harder. We’re playing a little tougher. We’re executing a little bit better. Guys, individuals, are playing a little bit better. But we’re still in flux.”
Kentucky (15-6, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) has improved its record by winning five of the last six, but even in that stretch has struggled with inconsistency. Throttle Auburn on the road, then blow a lead at Alabama. Whip a ranked, red-hot Ole Miss team in Oxford, then need overtime to topple a tumbling Texas A&M.
“We’re just hanging on,” Calipari said. “We’re not near our best.”
The good news is the Wildcats might not have to be to win their two games this week. They get South Carolina (12-9, 2-6) Tuesday night and Auburn (8-13, 2-6) on Saturday, both at Rupp Arena, after surviving a stretch that saw them play four of five on the road. The Gamecocks rank 199th in the Ratings Percentage Index, and the Tigers are 215th. Kentucky, uneven and all, has shot up from 62nd to 46th.
The NCAA Tournament picture looks less cloudy, but the team’s outlook on making a deep run in March will depend on how quickly the Wildcats can figure out who they are — “and what we want to be in March,” said Nerlens Noel, the national … [For more on Defending champion Kentucky faces identity crisis, click here.]