What Gives With Kentucky?

It was during the midst of ESPN’s Tuesday Big Ten game, with Purdue putting the screws to Wisconsin, that TV analyst Dan Dakich, began talking about the network’s next game, Kentucky-South Carolina. Dakich said that this was about the quietest Kentucky team in years. I pondered it and thought how little I’d heard about the Wildcats. They were buried under the din of the NFL playoffs, New Year’s Six and the media focus on Duke and Marvin Bagley. What gives with Kentucky?

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The resume to date is not very impressive, at least by Big Blue standards. They’re projected as a 4-seed for the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. They only rank 32nd in the country in defensive efficiency and the offensive numbers are even lower. They lost the game Dakich was hyping, blowing a double-digit lead to the Gamecocks and are simply one of a group of five teams in reasonable position to win the SEC title.

It will also surprise no one to find out that six of Kentucky’s top eight players are freshmen and the two “veterans” are sophomores. Kevin Knox, a 6’9” forward, is the best of the group, averaging 15 points/6 rebounds per game.

Knox leads up a lineup whose core strength is on the frontcourt. Knox is joined by P.J. Washington at the forward spot. And when John Calipari goes to his bench, he finds size waiting. Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards and Sacha Kilyea-Jones all go 6’9” or taller and all rebound the ball consistently.

But the biggest story for Kentucky is who hasn’t been on the floor—or at least who just returned. Another big freshman, Jarred Vanderbilt was injured prior to the season and got his first minutes of this season in spot duty against South Carolina. Vanderbilt goes 6’9”, can rebound, and is renowned for excellent court vision. He even played a little point guard against the Gamecocks.

In short, Kentucky is getting it’s presumptive best player back just at a time when everyone else has been able to gain experience playing without him and just in time for the season’s biggest games. The Wildcats currently trail Florida by a game in the conference and the Gators are coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday night for the ESPN national audience. One week later, it’s the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and a tough road trip to West Virginia.

Kentucky has been quiet so far this year. These next two Saturdays will give us a hint of whether that’s going to change as March draws closer.