Kansas’ 65-61 victory late Tuesday night over babe-in-the-woods Kentucky hardly inspired Final Four confidence for the Jayhawks.
I get it. A win is a win. This is November. This game will have no bearing on what happens in March when both teams will be completely different.
But from what I’ve seen from KU in the infant stages, it’s the most vulnerable of any of Bill Self’s teams during his storied tenure.
Red flag No. 1 is the lack of depth, especially with the absence of Billy Preston, who now has missed two games for transgressions. At 6-10 with a chiseled body, the Jayhawks sorely need his physical presence, not to mention his versatility and scoring potential. Who knows when, or even if, he’ll be back. Self doesn’t need another season of distractions like last year and Preston so far has proven to be a headache.
Without Preston, the Jayhawks are down to a seven-man rotation. One of those is Mitch Lightfoot, who is undersized in the post and lacks offensive skills. Fortunately Kentucky didn’t resort to hack-a-Lightfoot or hack-an-Azubuike late in the game as neither will make 40 percent of their free throws.
The other sub off the bench is Marcus Garrett and while talented, he’s a freshman.
That’s quite a load to put on the starting five.
This is now Devonte’ Graham’s team. In his first big test as the leader, he was just 3 of 14 from the field, 1 of 6 from 3-point. But he also nailed the game down with two clutch free throws and played 39 exhausting minutes.
Udoka Azubuike went 34 minutes, way too many this early in the season. He scored 13 points and pulled down 8 rebounds, but he needs help. He’ll be spent by Christmas if he has to play that many minutes.
Svi Mykhailiuk had a license to shoot. He launched 18 attempts and was 3 of 10 from beyond the arc. I’m sure Self expects more than that.
Malik Newman was ordinary until late. He was 4 of 14, but was clutch down the stretch. For off as he was, he was a rebound shy of a double-double and played 33 minutes.
Lagerald Vick also didn’t shoot it well, but I liked how hard he battled. He played 37 minutes.
KU was just 24 of 68 from the field for 35 percent and not many Self teams have won games shooting so poorly. It also was 9 of 16 at the foul line after being 5 of 12 at one point.
This game is why Self schedules a team like Kentucky, though. He wants to find out about his team and how it will respond in big-time atmosphere.
As for Kentucky, one-and-done puppet master John Calipari might find himself having a big sophomore class next year. Other than the silky and underused Kevin Knox — 20 points on just 13 shots – the Wildcats are little more than a collection of greyhound athletes who have a long way to go to refine their skills. While they can run and jump, they don’t handle the ball well and shoot it crooked. This isn’t a team — at least yet — that shows that it will be a Final Four contender.
It’s early. But at this point I don’t see either team approaching last year’s outstanding seasons.