Is Kentucky in trouble? Yep. The Wildcats were a Big Blue turnover machine on the basketball court Tuesday night against Kansas in Chicago during the Champions Classic. They also looked offensively challenged, and I won't even mention that John Calipari juggled his point guards as if he expected John Wall to walk through that door.
Wall won't, by the way.
"Hey, I was having breakfast here in Sarasota, and these people came up to me, and they told me they're big fans of the Big Blue Nation," Dick Vitale said, delivering a steady burst of energy over the phone Monday as if he were in front of an ESPN camera or something. "Their first question to me was, 'Dickie V, DICKIE V. What's wrong with our 'Cats?' You hear them, and at the time this is happening over the weekend, I'm going, 'They're 2-0. THEY'RE 2-0!' "
Now younger than young Kentucky is 2-1 after losing 65-61 to a bunch of Kansas Jayhawks, who moved to 2-0 with their veterans, and they shot even worse than Kentucky from the floor at 35 percent to 42.
As for Vitale's story, that's funny. Just because it is and also because, give or take a few things, I had the same first question for Vitale, my go-to guy for decades regarding college basketball. I mean, the Wildcats struggled last week against Utah during their home opener, and I'm not talking about the University of Utah or even Utah State.
I'm talking about Utah Valley.
Not only that, but Kentucky trailed Utah Valley by nine points at halftime before surviving during the final seconds, and get this: These particular Wolverines came into Rupp Arena as visitors from a conference with the likes of Grand Canyon, CSU Bakersfield and UT Rio Grande Valley as opposed to Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana.
After Utah Valley left town, Vermont arrived in Lexington, Ky., to give the Wildcats fits, and I get it. Vermont isn't as much of a patsy for Kentucky as, say, well, um, Utah Valley. Those who live for March Madness still remember how Vermont knocked Syracuse out of the 2005 NCAA Tournament in the first round. Just last season, the Catamounts won 29 games while going undefeated in their conference. They also had four returning starters facing a Kentucky team dominated by freshmen and sophomores.
But you know what? This still was Vermont.
Just like Kentucky's earlier game against Michigan -- oops, the Wolverines of Utah Valley -- that near-miss against Vermont for the Wildcats caused gasping around college basketball. Consider, too, that Kentucky's four-point victory over Vermont was uneven (and unnerving, if you cheer for UK) at best.
So I'm wondering: Given this shaky start for Kentucky, is it finally happening? Is all of that gambling involving one-and-done recruits catching up to Calipari in his ninth season at Kentucky? Mostly, given his ability to prosper through the years despite watching a large chunk of his team go to the NBA every year, is that scenario vanishing as quickly as the Wildcats' mystique?
You may laugh now, because Vitale almost did.
"Oh, I don't think all of this is catching up to Calipari and Kentucky at all, because it's just going to take time for these young kids to really get into rhythm," said Vitale, 78, the king of college hoop analysts. When he served as the ESPN color man Tuesday night for the Kentucky-Kansas game, it triggered memories of Dec. 5, 1979. That's when Vitale worked the first ESPN telecast ever for college basketball, and it also was in Chicago, where Wisconsin battled Mark Aguirre and DePaul back then.
"This is my 39th year doing this. Oh, my God," Vitale said, laughing. "This has exceeded all of my dreams, because I love doing it."
Along the way from then to now at ESPN, Vitale has seen more than a few Kentucky games. There was the Joe B. Hall era, when Adolph Rupp's successor kept the Big Blue tradition of powerhouses dominated by seniors. The Wildcats imploded under Eddie Sutton due to a talent drain through graduations and various scandals. Then came the Kentucky renaissance under Rick Pitino, partly because he returned to the old Rupp and Hall philosophy of getting the best of the best out of basketball-rich Kentucky and nearby Indiana on occasion. Tubby Smith followed Pitino to become the first African-American coach for the Wildcats, and he coached them to a national championship soon after he arrived. Still, Kentucky fans weren't pleased Tubby couldn't reach the Final Four during his last nine seasons, and they were more irritated by Billy Gillispie, who was ousted after a couple of years of mediocrity.
In stepped Calipari, the miracle worker at UMass and Memphis, where he took schools to Big Dance glory. He had a plan for Kentucky. It involved recruiting as many future NBA studs as he could find for the college game.
So what if they never became sophomores?
Crazy. Nuts. Bizarre.
Yet with Calipari winning a national championship at Kentucky and contending for many more, his plan worked . . . until now. I'm just thinking that when your starting lineup is all freshmen, and when your top players off the bench are sophomores and a freshmen, and when none of these players are otherworldly by Calipari's recruiting standards, and when the rest of the SEC isn't as average as it usually is, the Wildcats are headed for issues.
"I just wouldn't judge this group until we get deeper into the season, because it's a big, psychological adjustment that these young players have to make, and John Calipari is a master at that," Vitale said of the 58-year-old coach whose teams have won 20 or more games 23 times during his nearly three decades as the head guy. "Remember this: Not many people can step out of high school, step on a court and immediately become a dominating player, because it's a big move to go from being the No. 1 superstar, which all of these kids were, to now having in college to share the ball and to share time."
Yeah, but most of Calipari's previous Kentucky teams did so with authority from the start of the season. Vitale acknowledged as much, saying, "Let me tell you that they had three superstars last year, and you could just look at them and tell they were headed to big-time stardom. They had De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. So they had three, legitimate NBA players. No doubt about it, and you knew it right away."
This isn't to say these current Wildcats are talentless. If nothing else, they're the nation's most versatile team, which means Calipari eventually will satisfy his constant desire of having interchangeable parts for a suffocating defense. Either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Quade Green runs things in the Kentucky backcourt, and to translate: The Wildcats don't have anybody close to Wall these days. Even though Kevin Knox is a splendid athlete, nobody ever will accuse him of rivaling Fox for electricity. PJ Washington already has a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds against Vermont) in the frontcourt, and Nick Richards nearly stretches to 7-foot inside of Calipari's two-guard, three-forward system. Still, neither makes you forget Anthony Davis.
What we have here are pretty good players for Calipari's latest Wildcats, when the Bluegrass folks demand pretty great ones.
Then again, there was Kentucky's 2013-14 season, when Calipari had a roster similar to this one. Julius Randle and the Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) were among eight freshmen playing significant minutes. Their 10 losses were the second-most during the regular season for a Calipari team at Kentucky, but those Wildcats reached the national championship game.
So much for Kentucky's past. As for the present, with apologies to Vitale, these Wildcats aren't AWESOME, BABY!