Last night Kentucky lost to Notre Dame 64-50 in South Bend. The Fighting Irish did what we usually expect them to do, winning at home in a slow-paced (57-possession) game that made their opponent look really bad. (Although I'll grant that wearing uniforms with quite literally illegible numbers was a new touch.)
If it can happen to a team as good as Syracuse clearly was last season, we shouldn't be terribly surprised to find it can happen to a young group like this season's Wildcats, right? Be that as it may, at least one UK fan did what we usually expect at least some UK fans to do, overreacting in a major way and posting a "Might Be NIT Bound" thread on a UK message board.
The good news for Kentucky fans is that this team is not NIT bound. (Going way out on a limb here, I know.) The bad news is they're not going to be as good as they were last season (another big surprise).
Saying Kentucky's performance will fall somewhere in between the NIT and going undefeated in the SEC, however, is a little too broad for my tastes. So let's look at the Wildcats' performance to date and see if we can't zero in on exactly how high the expectations should be for this team.
In looking at UK's early metrics, I'm going to toss out the 217 possessions they played against Lafayette (a 101-49 Kentucky win), Morehead State (81-70), and LIU Brooklyn (104-75). But before I do that, let me make one quick point. Two of those three teams, Morehead State and LIU Brooklyn, are at least respectable, and by that I mean they're about as good or as or possibly even better than a bottom-drawer SEC team. I may think there's more to be gained in looking at how well the Wildcats have played against Maryland, Duke, and Notre Dame, but I'll grant going in that the expected wins against the Eagles and Blackbirds were actually a hair more encouraging than commonly thought, particularly coming from a team with five new starters.
That being said, here are the other things you need to know when assessing this Kentucky team:
Notre Dame is good.
I can keep saying this and saying this until I'm blue in the face, but I guess I'll say it one more time: Mike Brey's team is underrated. Yes, they lost to Saint Joseph's at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but the Hawks are good too, and anyway that game went to overtime.
Brey returns everyone except Alex Dragicevich from a team that went 13-5 in the Big East last season and outscored conference opponents by 0.06 points per possession. Jack Cooley is clearly on a first-team All-Big East trajectory, combo guard Eric Atkins had an amazing November disguised for the time being as a pass-first point guard, and Cameron Biedscheid apparently has all the tools to be a star except enough minutes. This was no upset, so to be honest I'm not entirely sure why the students stormed the floor.
Precedent's an impossible standard in Lexington.
On second thought, I know exactly why the students in South Bend stormed the floor. Their team had just beaten Kentucky.
There's a challenge that comes from playing for the Wildcats, and it's the ease and indeed accuracy with which people can say: "You aren't as good as X." Every point guard that plays for Calipari will be told he's not as good as Derrick Rose and/or John Wall, and, of course, 99 times out of 100 that statement will be correct. Similarly, every big man will be told he's not as good as Anthony Davis, and 100 times out of 100 that statement too will be accurate.
In SEC play last season, UK outscored their opponents by 0.26 points per possession, the highest margin I've ever seen in major-conference competition. John Calipari's team is simply not going to equal that level of performance this season. No team will.
Kentucky can be worse than last season and still reach the Final Four.
There's so much to like about this young team. Alex Poythress was limited by foul trouble against the Irish and never really got going, but the early indications suggest he won't be in foul trouble that often but will be a reliable high-volume 6-7 scorer. Kyle Wiltjer, who's probably ecstatic to be getting so many minutes and possessions as a sophomore, is draining shots from both sides of the arc. And Nerlens Noel has proven he'll be a reliable scoring threat in the paint sooner rather than later (though clearly his 52 percent free throw shooting may pose an issue in the late stages of close games).
About Noel. The best information we had on the big man coming into the season was two-fold: 1) Obviously no freshman, for any team, can hope to duplicate what Anthony Davis did last season; but 2) if any freshman could at least hope to come within a country mile of Davis' performance on defense, it was Nerlens Noel. This may indeed turn out to be true, but we should understand what "coming within a country mile" of Davis on defense entails.
On paper Kentucky's interior defense so far on the young season is fine: Maryland, Duke, and Notre Dame combined to make just 43 percent of their twos. But if you watched last night's game you know that opponents, at least at this early stage, aren't the least bit hesitant about bringing the ball into the paint. That, to put it mildly, is a big change from last season.
The Wildcats can offset a few more opponent twos, however, with continued hot shooting. Even including their less than stellar performance on offense last night, UK has started the season making their shots from both sides of the arc. That is an encouraging sign for the faithful in Lexington.
Here's what I said three months ago about Kentucky:
So right now the safe bet may be to expect something like what we saw from Kentucky in 2011, the Brandon Knight/Terrence Jones-led team that made the Final Four as a No. 4 seed and lost a close game to eventual national champion Connecticut. That feels about right for this 2012-13 edition of the Wildcats.
I still think that feels about right. As many people have pointed out, correctly, this is a young team even by Calipari's high-turnover standards. This UK team is going to drop some games on the road this season, and may even trigger another court-storming or two. But Calipari's track record -- the man's been to the last seven Sweet 16s -- says it would be a big mistake to write off his young team in November.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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