LEXINGTON, Ky. — Looking for a comparison with this Kentucky team? Try 2013-14 when Kentucky lost 10 games prior to the NCAA tournament, entered with a No. 8 seed and yet still reached the national title game before losing to UConn.
That would mean the Wildcats would still have to lose nine more times between now and Selection Sunday, which seems like quite a bit considering they have struggling UCLA in New Orleans Saturday and host Louisville on Dec. 29. They still play at West Virginia in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in January and must go through an improving SEC, but nine more? Doubt it.
So, forget the record here. That won’t be duplicated. This Kentucky team will/should still have a gaudy record. But coach John Calipari is dealing with something similar this season to that 2013-14 team: a lot of inexperience, lacking a proven returning star, and unknowns.
All of it can be solved — because the potential is there for the Wildcats to be in the mix for a national title, despite any and all obstacles.
This is, after all, Kentucky.
“I don’t know where we’re at, but I know we’re getting better,’’ said the Hall of Fame coach during a wide-ranging interview with NCAA.com at Rupp Arena. “Some of the anxiety of playing college basketball has worn off. But we’re starting five freshmen and eight months ago these guys were playing high school basketball and now they’ve been thrown into this environment.’’
Calipari is leaning on seven freshman and three sophomores among his top healthy 11.
The Wildcats’ only loss was to Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago last month. The most notable win came last weekend at home against unranked Virginia Tech. Wins over Vermont, East Tennessee State, Utah Valley, Harvard and even Fort Wayne (see Indiana) aren’t going to move the meter but they all may compete for their respective conference titles.
Still, this was hardly a gauntlet like others have faced. And that’s fine. Kentucky is being built for March, not for December.
Calipari rattled off how each player has improved since the beginning of the season, most notably PJ Washington and Kevin Knox, who he said is no longer settling for jumpers but is instead attacking.
“How do you take what we did because it wasn’t good enough,’’ said Calipari. “I told them that they were so far behind and now you’re adequate.’’
He said this team has to get better individually. He’s hoping/needs this team to be a machine offensively. Calipari wondered will they be disruptive with their size? Will they become a shot-blocking, rebounding, flying around team?
"I don’t know where we will be but I do know we’ve gotten better,’’ said Calipari.
The easy thing to do is say that Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nick Richards, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones or Tai Wynyard aren’t the same as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony-Towns or Anthony Davis.
“Let me let everyone in on a secret — no one is,’’ Calipari said. “There were only five or six guys I coached here like that. The rest of them are like the guys I’m coaching now. But with that said and done, I would be surprised if three or four of them aren’t in the lottery.’’
Kentucky’s numbers are still solid, scoring over 80 a game, giving up 69. The Wildcats are shooting over 50 percent overall, but 37.1 percent on 3s while limiting teams to 31.5 percent from long range.
“This team will be fine,’’ Calipari said. “I can’t promise you if they will stay this course. We’re either winning now or we’re learning. We’re not losing.’’
Calipari said there is no update on the possible return of Jarred Vanderbilt from a foot injury that has sidelined him the whole season. Calipari said he would give the Wildcats another high-level scorer if he gets back on the court. But that’s a big if.
“He will not be playing just so we can win a couple more basketball games,’’ Calipari said. “I will not put him out there for that. If he plays this year it will be because he can help himself and our team. If he’s not able to go and he knows he’s not able to compete, then he shouldn’t play. He’s going through the process now of working individually and we will eventually get him into team practices. If he can stay up with this then it would be try a couple of games. But I’m not pressuring him. If he can’t come back and comes back next year, that’s good for us.’’
Calipari said he’s still experimenting with this group, and has played more zone defense because of the length and athleticism. But don’t expect him to play much more than a max of about 14 percent since he said zone won’t help these players in the future.
Calipari said the improved SEC could lead to eight teams landing NCAA bids and he expects each league game to be tough to win. As for next week’s game against Louisville, sans Rick Pitino, the game will still have massive appeal and intensity.
“It’s still Louisville-Kentucky,’’ he said. “When I’m not here, and Louisville plays Kentucky, it’s still going to be a big game within our state, maybe not the country, but within here. I’ve tried not to make it a big game, but as much as I want to make it just about the game, it’s still Louisville.’’
And this is still Kentucky where expectations are always for a national title, no matter the path to competing for one.
“We were struggling to land the plane (in 2014),’’ said Calipari. “We almost ran out of runway. We got it down in March and when we got it down we played in the final game of the season. Four weeks before that people didn’t think we could make the Sweet 16. This may be one of those years. This is going to be a year where we take some losses. We’ve had one already. Now it’s about winning and learning. In late February and March it’s about winning and losing. I’m still experimenting and trying to figure out what will work with this team.’’