Tuesday night was a loaded slate in college hoops - one where UConn looked its best in months, Trayce Jackson-Davis continued to etch his name in Indiana's record books, all while North Carolina... kinda looked like an NIT team.
At the same time, there was no bigger result - because there was really no bigger game - than the one that took place in Rupp Arena on Tuesday. There, both Arkansas and Kentucky entered as part of Joe Lunardi's "Next Four Out" at-large teams, marking a crucial test for each.
A crucial test became a laugher though, as Arkansas smacked Kentucky, 88-73. The Hogs got their signature win, while Kentucky once again fell flat on their faces.
With the loss, the Wildcats fell back into Joe Lunardi's "Last Four In," and could very much miss the NCAA Tournament. Which is wild, since they came into Tuesday night having won six of seven, with many believing they were finally turning a corner.
So, with about a month left in the regular season and Kentucky clinging to one good win (at Tennessee), here is the question we're asking today:
What is Kentucky's ceiling this season?
Aaron Torres, college hoops writer Zac Krull and former Division I head coach Jamion Christian debate
So, by this point, just about anyone who cares to hear my opinion Kentucky this season has had ample opportunities to do so - as I have basically gone through "the seven stages of grief" with the Wildcats.
I liked them preseason, told everyone to stay calm during their early struggles, called the John Calipari era "dead" following a loss to South Carolina... and then weirdly circled back and said "I will never call for his job again" once they started playing like Kentucky again.
So yeah, I've said it all, but let me say this: I actually think Kentucky's upside is a little bit higher than most at this point in the year. But it does come with one big caveat.
Now in terms of why I think their upside is higher than most, first off, let me say this: Kentucky is going to make the tournament. I know right now the metrics don't love them - and in this case, the metrics are right. At the same time, they've really avoided catastrophic losses since the South Carolina game, and for the most part (again, outside of South Carolina) beaten the teams they were supposed to. There are enough winnable games where they should have a tournament-worthy resume by the end of the year.
Of course, the goal in Lexington isn't to make the tournament - but to win games, a lot of them, once you get there.
And that's where the caveat comes in: This team more than any other needs the right draw, and specifically, the right matchups, to have any success in March. The right team, with the right personnel is going to give them fits. Things will have to go perfect for them to win. But if they get a few teams with the wrong personnel?
What is that personnel?
Well, whether it was obvious before this week or not, Oscar Tshiebwe has gone from National Player of the Year, to essentially a liability. It's clear he can't finish over length, something that both Florida (Colin Castelton) and Arkansas (the Mitchell twins) have thrown at him. It's not surprising that he struggled against two teams with true seven-foot post presences, while also feasting against teams that don't have that size down low, including a 23 and 19 effort against Missouri, 18 and nine against Kansas... and how about a ho-hum, 37-point, 24-board effort against Georgia.
So basically, to understand Kentucky's March future, it depends on who they see. here are teams, even good ones, that don't have the size and length to deal with Tshiebwe down low. There are others who will give him fits.
Because of it, Kentucky will be one of the most fascinating teams to follow heading into Selection Sunday.
They have the talent to play with anyone. But the holes where they could lose to anyone as well.
While the Wildcats lost the majority of their games against quality opponents early in the season, Kentucky did bounce back nicely winning six of their last eight games, since their embarrassing loss to SEC bottom dweller South Carolina on January 10th. That loss felt like rock bottom, and in vintage John Caliapri fashion, Kentucky surprised most by beating a Tennessee team that is currently ranked sixth in the country. With wins over teams like Florida and Texas A&M during this stretch, there was some hope that the Wildcats had turned things around.
However, when you watched Kentucky there still always felt like something was still a little off and it reared its ugly head on Tuesday Night against Arkansas.
Not many people could have expected before the season that Oscar Tshiebwe would be a liability for Kentucky. That was crystal clear however, when Arkansas repeatedly would go after the big man in the pick and roll, with it working every single time. Earlier this season, opposing head coaches pointed to Tshiebwe's defense as a main focus for his team’s offensive approach. In particular, his inability to properly and consistently defend ball screens in the halfcourt. The big man was pulled off the floor very early in Kentucky’s embarrassing loss at Alabama earlier this season, forcing the defending National Player of the Year to only play 23 minutes of action. While Oscar was on the floor much longer against Arkansas, the Hogs used that to their advantage and made it an emphasis to go after him. When the defending National Player of the Year is unplayable at times, then it is unknown just how high your team’s ceiling can even be.
Kentucky was also missing Sahvir Wheeler against Arkansas, due to an ankle injury suffered in practice. While Wheeler has shifted to the bench in favor of Cason Wallace at the Starting Point Guard spot, it was clear that the lack of depth really affected Kentucky. Wallace had to play 39 minutes and Kentucky only played seven players throughout the game. One positive Damion Collins did give Kentucky some really good minutes off the bench and showed he can provide a spark when needed. However, without Tshibwe at his best this Kentucky team’s ceiling is lowered by a wide margin.
While it is now clear that Kentucky’s best lineup featured the five of Wallace-Fredrick-Reeves-Toopin and Tshiebwe, it is unknown just how effective that lineup can be with a clear defensive weakness. This is a situation John Calipari will have to think long and hard about and the answers might not be at his disposable. Kentucky hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 2019 and right now it’s difficult to envision that changing this season with the inconsistency shown on both sides of the floor.
When I watch Kentucky play I see a team that is still trying to figure out how to play together. I am really encouraged with the move of Cason Wallace to the point guard spot. I love that it gives Kentucky a way to win that is unique for most teams they will play - Arkansas being the exception. The next few weeks are important because they are evolving as a team in front of our eyes.
On a positive note, playing with size gives them a defensive advantage. We saw this in the Tennessee game with Zakai Ziegler (3/12 for the game) missing shots in the lane. The SEC is dominated by smaller, quicker guards who get into the lane and create. Having Cason Wallace guarding the point will create tons of issues for opposing point guards like longer contests on any jump shot opportunity (a perimeter contest with a left hand on a right shooter is about 18% more effective than on an open opportunity). Wallace has great recovery skills and uses his size well to get back to the contest.
Kentucky has not been the scoring threat in transition that we are used to seeing. Wallace playing the point provides an opportunity (if he can improve on his 3.6 rebounds per game) for him to rebound and push in transition himself. These situations are hard for opponents to adjust to on the fly and will open up opportunities for CJ Frederick and Antonio Reeves in the open floor..
At the same time, there are concerns: Most notably, are the assists going to come from? Over the last five games, Kentucky is averaging just under six steals a game (215 national over that time). If they’re not creating steals with the length, that translates to a lot of play in the half court. Transition basketball allows for easier assists and better ball movement to get others involved. If teams stop doubling Oscar Tshiebwe and Cason Wallace does not create (which he has been improving each week), how will Kentucky create better 2 on 1 opportunities to score? Good offense makes two people play the ball. Great offense makes three or more players play the ball. Bad offense allows the defense to play 1 on 1 against loaded defenders. Right now, Kentucky is allowing teams to play them this way.
Finally, we are writing this piece shortly after the Arkansas game, and let me say: Arkansas specifically is a very tough matchup for them.The Razorbacks have bigs that allow them to play one-on-one in the post, and have more than one big to absorb fouls against Tshiebwe.
Also, Anthony Black and the size that Arkansas has at all five spots on the floor negates the size advantage that Kentucky has recently played. Eric Musselmen has the personnel and the playbook to put Oscar Tshiebwe in constant pick and roll coverages, moving him away from the basket and making him guard every time down the floor.
With that said, what is their ceiling?
I believe they are a NCAA tournament team. The last few weeks they have begun to settle down and play consistently as they develop a rhythm.