Column: Is Kentucky as deep as Calipari says it is?


Kentucky Wildcats forward Bryce Hopkins (23) celebrates after giving his team the lead during the UK vs. Louisiana State University mens basketball game on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 71-66. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

With tip-off between Kentucky and Saint Peter’s in the Round of 64 in the 2022 NCAA Tournament less than 72 hours away, it’s time to ask the question: Can Kentucky really win it all? 

Well, sure they can.

Just look at all the pieces John Calipari has to choose from. 

Oscar Tshiebwe is a shoe-in for National Player of the Year. Sahvir Wheeler is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. TyTy Washington Jr is one of the best freshman in the country. Kellan Grady is the best shooter in the SEC, arguably the nation.

Keion Brooks Jr and Davion Mintz bring in that Kentucky experience, with Jacob Toppin rounding out the top seven players that see the floor on a consistent basis. 

When the gears are turning, Kentucky looks unstoppable. Big Blue Nation knows this, Calipari and his players know this, anyone in the world of collegiate basketball knows this. 

Every season, once the new year rolls around, Calipari begins his anecdotes about March. Everything leads towards March, to the point where its become well-known that Calipari-coached teams tend to peak towards the end of February, into postseason time. 

Its an easy argument to make that that hasn’t been the case this season. 

The drubbing that the Cats took from Tennessee in the SEC Tournament Semifinals was anything but a positive sign heading into the big dance. 

Yes, Kentucky managed to wrangle the Volunteer lead down to one possession with less than a minute go, somehow. That old phrase of ‘good teams find a way to win when it counts’ nearly rang true, but the Cats never pulled the rabbit out of the hat in Tampa. UT had an answer for everything. 

Calipari wrote off a decent chunk of the loss due to no rhythm, as Kentucky did not have a shootaround before the game. The consistent pre-game mojo was gone, and that certainly reflected on the court. 

Regardless of what the team did before, during or after the loss, it was one of the worst performances the Cats have turned it all season. 

As cool as Calipari played it in the postgame presser, a performance of that low caliber in March has to cause some concern. Will there be a lasting impact from that loss? 

It’s a quick turnaround from conference tournaments to the NCAA. Kentucky will have had four days of rest after playing back-to-back days before they take on Saint Peter’s. 

The noted struggles of Grady, while Washington hasn’t been efficient in his return from injury, mixed with the inconsistent additions of Brooks, Mintz and Toppin. There are unknowns for Kentucky entering the tournament, that doesn’t happen very often. 

Calipari has reassured BBN that he feels confident ahead of March Madness, stating that his team runs deep and everyone will know what their role is come Thursday.

Can we define the meaning of deep? You’ll hear no push-back if Kentucky’s starting five is considered the best in the nation when healthy. Mintz is a terrific sixth man when he is shooting the ball well, and Toppin’s energy is the kind of thing that a team needs when its back is against the wall. 

But after that, where does Calipari go?

There is no more playing Bryce Hopkins and Daimion Collins for sparse minutes to try and figure out where they fit in.

Lance Ware has nestled into his role behind Tshiebwe well, but is Kentucky okay with him seeing more than a few minutes a game? 

Players like Grady and Mintz are interchangeable, sure. But if the Cats run into another buzzsaw like Tennessee, where not a single Cat is playing up to par, there aren’t many options to turn to. 

Saint Peter’s will run at least 10 players out on the court on Thursday. Kentucky doesn’t have to do that, and most national championship winning teams don’t. 

When it comes down to brass tax, your starting five is who wins and loses you games in March. If you’re relying on massive production from your bench rotation, there’s a good chance you’ll be on upset alert early. 

The Wildcats still must be considered one of the favorites to make it to New Orleans in April. Guard play is regarded as the key to getting there, and UK has that in spades. 

They also boast a big man that has won more awards than some teams have won games, so no quarrels down low either. 

Kentucky’s star power must propel them to the top. Calipari’s confidence in his depth is fine and dandy, but when the Wildcats are tied with two minutes to go, there is only one group of five that needs to see the court, maybe switching out one or two players. 

Saint Peter’s is an aggressive defensive team. Murray State in the second round would provide all the drama needed, and Purdue is an offensive juggernaut that will waste no time if they matchup with UK in the Sweet 16. 

Kentucky’s top dogs have to come ready to play, plain and simple. Grady cannot have another off-night shooting. Tshiebwe cannot find foul trouble. There can’t be multiple possessions in a game where Wheeler is the lone Cat to touch the ball. 

When it’s do or die, there are a select few players that Calipari will turn to. Enough acting like this is a 10-man job. If title No. 9 is to be hung in the rafters of Rupp Arena, Kentucky and Calipari have to go with what got them there.