LEXINGTON — Angst is arguably at an all-time high with the fan base around University of Kentucky men’s basketball, with dreams of 40-0, 39-1 and 38-2 now gone.
I, too, have seen flags for the Wildcats that are at least a dark pink, if not flat-out red, namely related to effort and attitude — pesky things like that.
Still, we’re not even to New Year’s Day yet, so I would suggest we may be over-reacting just a tad.
Here are my holiday grades, ranging from A to F, for coach John Calipari’s Wildcats, who are 9-3 heading into Saturday’s annual clash with rival Louisville (4 p.m., at Rupp Arena):
Julius Randle (18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds per game): Grade A. I stop just short of giving Randle an A+ because there have been times I wish Randle would be even more assertive (Read: Second half of the Michigan State game) than he is.
And I’d be the first to say maybe I’m being unfair because Randle is, after all, just a freshman, and any passivity he ever shows is because of unselfishness as opposed to laziness.
I’d also like to see Randle be less dependent on that predictable spin move.
All this said, I believe Randle has what it takes to be unstoppable by tournament time.
Aaron Harrison (15.1 ppg.): Grade A. Aaron’s twin brother, Andrew, catches so much flak at point guard that I wonder if some of that carries over to Aaron. As Calipari has noted: “I’m not sure a lot of people can tell the difference between Aaron and Andrew,” because the twins do indeed look so much alike.
This is too bad for Aaron, because he’s quietly having an outstanding freshman season at the two guard spot.
Aaron has a very nice shooting touch from all spots on the floor, and makes good decisions.
I can’t give an A+ this early, but Aaron is on his way.
Willie Cauley-Stein (9.3 ppg., 8 rpg., and 4.1 blocks per game): Grade A-. The 7-foot, 244-pound Cauley-Stein has improved dramatically in every aspect of his game other than free throw shooting, where he’s just 18 of 37 this season.
Cauley-Stein blocks shots like Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis, and he has improved immensely in his post moves. Plus, he rarely gives less than an A+ effort.
Cauley-Stein still needs to get a little stronger to be this kind of player at the NBA level, but I’m optimistic he’ll get there.
James Young (13.4 ppg., 3.8 rpg.): Grade B. The 6-6 Young has as pure a shooting stroke as you’ll see in basketball, but he gets off rhythm too often. That said, he’s a great kid who cares, and I’m optimistic he’ll come on as the season rolls on.
Andrew Harrison (10.6 ppg., 3.5 assists per game): Grade C. The knock on Harrison is that he sulks too much after making mistakes, to the point that he gives up too many points in transition.
Calipari does not seem concerned, suggesting that maybe Harrison is merely a victim of youth and the pressure that comes with the point guard position at Kentucky.
Cal sites Marquis Teague, point guard on his 2012 national championship team, as a poster child for patience.
“How was Marquis early?” Calipari said this past week. “Like really struggled, worse than Andrew. And he came around and ended up being a national championship point guard.”
Alex Poythress (4.7 ppg., 6 rpg.): Grade C. Poythress is tough to assess. The knock on him through one-plus seasons is that he takes not only plays, but games off, mentally. I heard one of my peers recently suggest that maybe Poythress simply isn’t THAT good of a basketball player ... that he looks the part, but simply isn’t capable of being as good as we wish he would be.
I don’t know. Calipari raves about Poythress in practice frequently, but I wonder if that’s a bit of Cal using the media to try to get positive reinforcement to the player.
Poythress plays harder on a more consistent basis than he did last season. But there’s still a long way to go.
Dominique Hawkins (1.5 ppg.): Grade B. Hawkins does not yet give you numbers to write home about, but he gives you Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-type effort. The numbers will come in the next year or two. Hawkins could end up one of the most popular Kentucky players ever, again, just because he’s such a great kid and plays so darned hard. And, he’ll be here four years.
Dakari Johnson (3.9 ppg., 3.5 rpg.): Grade B-. The 7-foot Johnson has seen his playing time slip recently, but he, too, will develop into a wonderful college player down the road. Johnson plays hard and has skills, but he’s just so raw.
Marcus Lee (3.6 ppg., 2.1 rpg.): Grade B. A minor back issue and flu bug have sapped the playing time for the 6-9 Lee recently, but he’s also going to be fine. Lee also plays very hard and has skills that will blossom as he gains experience.
The others: Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood, Sam Malone, Todd Lanter, E.J. Floreal, Derek Willis and Brian Long haven’t played enough to judge. Polson and Willis have the potential to get more time as the season moves on. Long-term, Willis could become an outstanding player before he’s through at Kentucky, and Floreal could also be a diamond in the rough.
For all the flak Calipari is getting about this whole one-and-done business, I believe that Lee, Poythress, Willis, Johnson and Hawkins are an exciting nucleus to build around in years to come.
And if Calipari isn’t around to see them develop ... if he gets tired of the grumbling of UK fans, I have two words to say to you: Sean Miller.