DeAndre Ayton‘s arrival at Arizona made Sean Miller’s first trip to the Final Four seem possible and perhaps likely come April. Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges had returned to torch the field anew. Kansas and Villanova entered the season stacked with the talent to reach the last weekend again.
But where was the perennial, they-could-win-it-all buzz for the Kentucky Wildcats?
John Calipari had assembled another flock of five-stars — per the norm — but Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington hadn’t been welcomed by the masses with the adoration that typically accompanies Kentucky freshman classes.
Tuesday’s Champions Classic offered the Wildcats a chance to prove they can dance with the best, even though they lack showstoppers like De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, last season’s phone-a-friend heroes who always seemed to bail the squad out.
Instead, the Wildcats emerged as a young team with potential but no proven catalyst. No John Wall or Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker. No give-him-the-ball-and-we’re-good player they could find in a tight game.
Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas featured a 3-for-13 effort from the 3-point line, a 12-for-18 clip from the free throw line and 18 turnovers.
This is probably not the 2012-13 Kentucky team that stumbled into the NIT and lost in the first round. But keep dreaming if you think this is anything close to the 2014-15 team that won 38 of 39 games.
Kentucky might navigate the season like the turbulent 2013-14 squad that had a roller-coaster experience and still managed to reach the Final Four. But that’s far from a certainty.
The Wildcats looked lost throughout Tuesday’s game.
Kentucky will stay tight with most opponents this season because of its size. Few teams can handle a backcourt with 6-foot-5 Hamidou Diallo and 6-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And the big men all play with fire and above the rim. Six players on the roster stand 6-9 or taller.
It’s not clear what plays the Wildcats ran, however, or which defensive principles they applied Tuesday because the bulk of the game they just flew around the court and at the rim and across the floor, willing themselves into points through sloppy shooting and…