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College Basketball Handicapping: Kentucky Struggles
by Trevor Whenham - 12/14/2012

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Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel

If you trusted what the media had to say you would think that the sky was falling in Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats have lost three games this year. There is no real shame in losing to Duke, but Notre Dame isn’t a great loss, and the Baylor loss is just plain bad at this point. The team had the top recruiting class in the country and was ranked third heading into the season, so they are not supposed to be just 6-3 and unranked in mid-December. They are burning bettors’ money as well they are just 2-5 ATS. So, is the team in trouble? Or are they going to be able to get back on track and be a major threat in March as they were expected to be? Here are seven factors to consider when trying to answer those questions:

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Lost talent - John Calipari is the best recruiter we have ever seen, but to expect him to hit the ground running year after year just isn’t reasonable. Just think about what he lost coming into this season. He had six players leave his team last year for the draft. Included in that were the top two picks in the draft and four first-rounders, and all six players went within the Top 46 picks. For any other team but Kentucky, a loss like that would crush the program, yet we expect Calipari to carry on without missing a beat.

Young talent - Calipari’s starting lineup is made up of three freshmen, a sophomore, and a grad student who transferred in from Wright State this year. The sophomore, Kyle Wiltjer, averaged only 11.6 minutes per game last year and didn’t start a single game. In other words, there was next to no experience playing in the Calipari system on this team. The fact that the team has looked unsure of their roles too often this year, then, should come as no surprise.

Entitlement - I’m not saying that there is a sense of entitlement among this group of young players. When you keep bringing in the best group of young players in the country, though, and when those players expect to make a deep run in the tournament and then go pro, it would be easy for those players to start to believe that they were owed success and that they didn’t have to work for it. There are signs of concerns within the program Calipari has added early-morning conditioning sessions to his standard schedule of afternoon practices. It wouldn’t require a full-blown crisis to give the team issues even a little entitlement could damage the team. With a team this young, though, there is lots of potential for them to learn and mature quickly.

The talent is insane - The team might be young, but the talent is crazy. Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress were all ranked among the Top 14 recruits in the country last year. Willie Cauley-Stein was a high four-star. Kyle Wiltjer was the 18th-ranked recruit in 2011. Talent doesn’t always turn into success, but this much talent, combined with a coaching staff highly skilled at cultivating young talent, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The SEC is soft - Florida is a very good team. Missouri is probably quite good as well. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to respect a lot of the SEC this year. If Kentucky was in a very tough conference, and if that schedule was front loaded, then it could be tough to believe the team can get back on track in time. They play Florida for the first time on Feb. 12, and Missouri for the only time on Feb. 23, so there is plenty of time for the Wildcats to grow into themselves

Chance for retribution - The loss to Duke was a big blow for Kentucky. They have a chance to get back into the favor of the betting public and the media as soon as Dec. 29, though. That’s when they play their annual epic showdown with hated rivals Louisville. It’s an away game for the Wildcats, too, so a win in that one would be especially impressive, and it would inspire plenty of confidence.

Nothing is lost yet - There are people out there who would have you believe that the Wildcats are in trouble that their hopes of back-to-back titles are dead. That is, frankly, ridiculous. Just last year Kansas dropped three nonconference games and people were doubting them, but they wound up a No. 2 seed in the tournament, and they made it all the way to the final. Kentucky will struggle to be a top seed, and definitely won’t be one if they don’t beat Louisville, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get a good seed, and perform well once they do. Right now this is a young and inexperienced team. They’ll still be young in March, but experience won’t be nearly as much of an issue.

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