BY HAYES GARDNER
With three losses before December had hardly begun, Kentucky men’s basketball critics and fans alike are wondering what the deal is with the young, point guard-confused Wildcats.
On November 13, the Cats lost a 75-68 battle to the Blue Devils of Duke at the Georgia Dome without Coach Calipari’s latest phenom point guard, Ryan Harrow. Duke’s seniors handled Kentucky’s freshmen, who looked like they had just had their training wheels removed from their bikes, and Kentucky tumbled from third in the AP Top 25 to eighth. However, there was no reason to be alarmed. The Wildcats had four months to iron out the wrinkles before they had to look their best for The Big Dance. UK was fine.
Three cupcakes later, UK traveled to South Bend to face the veteran Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Between shots of Heisman candidate Manti Te’o leading the Irish student section, ESPN aired the 64-50 loss that was more disgraceful than disappointing. However, last year’s national championship team lost an early game in the same state and similar environment, so there wasn’t reason to be extremely alarmed. After all, UK’s next four games were in the invincible Rupp Arena.
The last time UK had lost in Rupp Arena, Billy Gillispie was coaching Jared Carter’s Senior Day and the price of gas was $1.93 a gallon. In that game, UK fell to the 12-18 Georgia Bulldogs. Since then, Rupp had been home to 55 straight UK victories under Coach Calipari. Even during UK’s nine-loss 2010-2011 campaign, the Wildcats notched zero defeats at home.
In their first real home test of this year, on December 1, UK fell to the Bears of Baylor 64-55, shooting 29.6% from the field, including a 1-of-11 performance from Kyle Wiltjer, UK’s version of a veteran. The AP poll responded by dropping the eighth-ranked Wildcats out of the top 25, the largest such fall since the ranking system was introduced over three decades ago.
On Nov. 12, UK was ranked third in the AP poll, right behind Louisville. In a year that was hyped to be the biggest year for the Bluegrass since the Cumberland Gap was traversed, the Wildcats found themselves unranked on Dec. 3, for the first time in the John Calipari-era.
So, is it time to look forward to next year’s stellar recruiting class? Or maybe mull over the miracles that Mark Stoops is planning for next year at Commonwealth? Not so fast.
This is UK’s fourth straight year of relying on a stellar group of first-year players to lead a team with lofty preseason expectations. However, this is the first Calipari team without a returning starter. The 2009-2010 squad, led by John Wall, returned team leader Patrick Patterson and seniors Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris. The 2010-2011 group mixed three freshmen with three veterans: DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Even last year’s team, which produced two freshmen as the top two NBA picks, returned sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, as well as graybeard Miller. This year’s Cats returned 7.1 points a game, led by returning seventh-man, Wiltjer.
It’s unfair to expect a team of first year players to win in November and December, but it’s happened every year since Cal came to town, so we’ve grown accustomed to it. If this year’s squad has proved anything, it is that they are human. With only two seniors, who scored a combined zero points for the Kentucky Wildcats entering this year, and only one returning contributor from last year’s team, bumps early in the year could have been predicted.
What couldn’t have been predicted is Ryan Harrow’s mere three games played, his questionable status between illness and personal problems and his 15.8% field-goal percentage. Harrow has proved more of a puzzle than a playmaker and career bench player Jarrod Polson and shooting guard Archie Goodwin have been forced to handle the point guard duties, bringing back nightmares of Michael Porter running the point.
Against Samford on Tuesday, December 4, Harrow saw the court for 21 minutes, but only managed two points on 1-of-2 shooting and 0-for-2 shooting from the charity stripe. The rest of the Cats carried the team to an easy victory, but the question remains: what is the deal with Harrow?
While the Wildcats are short on experience and efficient point guard play, they do have one thing working in their favor–time. The only place to go is up and the Cats have 23 games to go that direction before postseason play begins. UK has three more home games in December to continue its one-game Rupp Arena winning streak before the players are tested again, opposing Louisville in the hostile KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 29. In just over three weeks, we’ll see what Harrow and the rest of the young guns are made of before they kick off the SEC season.
Perhaps the three-loss start for the preseason third-ranked Wildcats isn’t what the Big Blue Nation had in mind for the first month of the season, but there’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and The Dance.
Yes, the Wildcats have already lost more games than last year’s team did over the course of a season. But, no it’s not time to panic. Not yet.