A core principle of headline writing is to create dramatic tension which gains the interest of the reader, provided that the subject matter addressed in the headline is in fact discussed in the article. "Is Kentucky okay?" might rate as an overly alarmist question to ask after a week and a half of college basketball this season. If you wanted to make that claim, you would be reasonable.
However, the deeper point about asking a possibly premature question is not the question itself, but the verdict. If one is to make the claim that a college basketball team is in deep trouble after just 10 days, one is making a very severe and weighty claim which needs to be backed up by evidence. One should err on the side of caution in these matters; overextending and trying to make the boldest, most controversial claim is the true problem. Merely asking a question about a team's well-being is not a problem if the actual discussion is handled well. With that in mind, let's deal with the Wildcats at this point in the season.
The first and most overarching point about Kentucky basketball at this point in the 2017-2018 season is simply that this feels a lot like most Kentucky seasons in the Calipari era, certainly most seasons since the 2012 national championship.
A number of freshmen (and sophomores) are learning how to play together. They are immersed in a long-term growth process, as opposed to a team dynamic that should already be whole and fundamentally stable. John Calipari is getting after his team on the court and in the press. His tough-love approach is very much in evidence. Kentucky will need to build slowly and steadily, surviving early-January SEC games so that it can thrive in February and set up the March finishing kick Calipari so regularly delivers, last year being a familiar example.
This is not a time to worry. If nothing has progressed by the second week of January, it will truly be time to worry.
That's the surface answer, but let's drill deeper to get to the most urgent concerns for Team Calipari.
You will notice that in each of Kentucky's first three games, it played to its competition -- down to Utah Valley and Vermont, up to Kansas. That doesn't mean Kentucky played great against Kansas, but it did play close. If upstarts tried to pounce on big, bad UK in the first two games, Kentucky was then able to relish being the underdog against a veteran Kansas group with Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick, and Udoka Azubuike, who was injured last season but did play and knows what to expect in Bill Self's system. The Wildcats had far less collegiate experience than Kansas and were able to view the Jayhawks as a target. They were the underdog and reveled in the moment... even though they didn't play nearly well enough to win.
The problem for Kentucky along those lines: It will not be the underdog -- or at least, not the team with the smaller target on its back -- in very many other games this season. It will be the object of opponents' fierce desires to take the Cats down.
Yet, as said above, this is nothing to be alarmed about -- this is a typical start to a Kentucky season. Calipari will take his underclassmen -- new in terms of the specific individuals involved, but familiar in the sense that this is an annual process -- and work them both physically and psychologically. He will ride them hard when he feels he has to ride them, and ease up on them when he knows they need encouragement and a source of uplift.
Performance -- referring to the precision with which players execute the maze of screens, cuts, hedges, traps, and other actions at both ends of the floor -- is an evolving thing, one which deserves and demands patience not just from Calipari himself, but from everyone who follows and cheers for this Kentucky team.
As we attempt to focus on urgent priorities -- things that need to be fixed sooner rather than later -- the number one priority is not consistency of performance, but consistency of effort.
While this team tries to slowly improve how well it performs from night to night, the one thing which needs to exist in every game is effort. While Kentucky played hard against Kansas, to be sure, it played hard in a way which was not always attentive or vigilant. Energy is a manifestation of passion, but energy can also be scattered and erratic, lacking any purpose or coherence. Effort is mostly a matter of bringing energy to the court, but it needs to be at least somewhat focused, even if the end result is imperfect.
One can therefore make the case that while Kentucky did compete and give a very good effort against Kansas last Tuesday, the Wildcats remained bystanders at the offensive end of the floor -- to an extent they cannot afford.
When Kentucky teams make the Final Four, they usually feast on the offensive glass. Three-point shooting comes and goes, but the power, size and leaping ability needed to clean the window can always exert their influence... if used properly. One would not question the raw physical ability of Kentucky recruits in the Calipari era -- this program gets the pick of the crop, and Calipari welcomes that challenge each season.
Against Kansas, then, the Cats' attentiveness on offense was missing. They did not pound the offensive backboard, collecting just 10 offensive rebounds the whole game on 32 missed field goal attempts. One might say that this problem will correct itself. That assertion might be correct, but that's not the key takeaway. The proper point of emphasis is that hustle-play-related dimensions of this team HAVE to remain in place while the more structural components of basketball, plus the caliber of field goal and free throw shooting, inevitably fluctuate and more slowly evolve over the course of a season. If Kentucky doesn't have consistent, focused effort, it will continue to suffer, perhaps to the point that the Wildcats will be a No. 3 seed instead of a 2 seed or 1 seed in March.
Let's mention one more detail of the offensive rebounding performance against Kansas, in which only one player, Sacha Killeya-Jones, grabbed more than two offensive boards (4) in his time on the floor. Kansas played essentially six players. Bill Self gave six minutes to a seventh player but otherwise rolled with a very short bench on a night when prized recruit Billy Preston was held out of the lineup due to an off-court matter (an automobile accident).
If based on players who played at least 10 minutes, Calipari played eight men on Tuesday (a ninth played seven minutes). For Kentucky to go with a rotation two men deeper against Kansas, yet get whacked 18-10 on the offensive glass, was and is the most unacceptable part of that performance. Never mind how ragged the game was, with Kentucky coughing up 18 turnovers. Young teams will commit turnovers. Young teams CANNOT allow themselves to be outworked. The energy was there, but the inattentiveness wasn't. The effort of the team was sincere, but the way that effort manifested itself was flawed.
That is the immediate concern for Kentucky. While the polish and precision of the offense demand improvement, that is a longer-term problem to be confronted. If Kentucky can't first take the energies and talents of another group of underclassmen and mold them into a team which knows how to fight well -- not merely hard -- this team can progress as Calipari and the Big Blue Nation hope it will.