Kentucky Insider: Three reasons the Wildcats could win it all, three things that could sabotage them

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The 2017-18 Kentucky basketball season is upon us. The fifth-ranked Wildcats open at home Friday night against Utah Valley, the first of a three-games-in-five-days stretch that ends against fourth-ranked Kansas in Chicago.

This is coach John Calipari’s youngest team yet and, thanks to injuries, he’ll begin his ninth season at UK with just nine available scholarship players: six freshmen and three sophomores. The good news? Among them are eight former 5-star recruits.

There is enough uncertainty for this season to get sideways but enough talent for the Cats to claim their ninth national championship. Here now, we offer three things that must happen for Kentucky to win it all and three things that will have gone wrong if it doesn’t:

The Cats can win it all if … 

1. Jarred Vanderbilt comes back and stays healthy.

Kentucky announced this summer that the 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American would likely have surgery to fix recurring issues in his left foot and miss three months. Then his prognosis got murkier and murkier.

John Calipari alternately said that things were looking up and maybe he’d be back sooner than expected … or if he wasn’t ready, the Wildcats wouldn’t push him and he could sit out the entire season.

We’re told Vanderbilt eventually visited a specialist, one who has worked with several NBA players, and heard back that there was no clear need for surgery and he could begin working his way back onto the court — which surprised everyone involved. Soon after, Calipari announced that Vanderbilt would begin conditioning and individual workouts and, when ready, resume practicing (which hasn’t happened yet).

All signs point to Vanderbilt coming back in the near future, and that’s a great thing for the Wildcats. Maybe. He has been called by teammates and coaches the most positionless player on the roster. He could legitimately play all five spots on the floor in a pinch.

At his best, he’s a potential lottery pick.  However, any basketball player his size with recurring foot problems feels a bit like a ticking time bomb. What if Vanderbilt comes back, plays a month or two and gets hurt again?

That would put his draft future in serious jeopardy and throw UK’s season into chaos if it has gotten used to playing with Vanderbilt and is then forced to scramble to replace him.

2. The Cats capitalize on their freakish length.

In the team’s second exhibition game, Calipari started Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel and PJ Washington. That lineup does not feature anyone under 6-foot-5 or a single wingspan shorter than 6-foot-11.

If you lined up those five guys fingertip to fingertip, they’d be as wide as two adult giraffes stacked on top of each other are tall: 35 feet and change. That doesn’t even include 7-footer Nick Richards and his 7-5 wingspan or 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and his 7-2 wingspan.

That kind of length  should be a nightmare for opponents. The Cats averaged 10.3 steals per game in three exhibition games — against albeit greatly overmatched and undersized competition — and the NCAA leader last season averaged 10.0. Still, it didn’t feel like UK was especially good or organized defensively yet.

As much as he loathes it, Calipari is at least considering the value of mixing in some zone this season, and he needs to. Length like that can create real problems in a zone. But when in man, Kentucky must utilize those long arms to deflect passes and cause turnovers and start fast breaks that lead to energy boosting dunks and easy points.

3. Knox becomes Kentucky’s go-to guy.

Yes, it’s big that Diallo came back, and there will be games he’ll lead the Cats in points and highlight-reel dunks. Sure, it’s important that Gabriel has newfound confidence as the only returning player with significant game experience. And clearly, point guard Quade Green’s shooting and leadership will be critical this season.

But Knox, the 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American who plays like a guard, is UK’s best player. There is no John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns on this team, but Knox is the closet thing to that, and these Cats will need someone who can take over and carry them.

He shot 60 percent from the field, sank three 3-pointers, made 11 of 12 free throws and averaged 19.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals in Kentucky’s three exhibition games. Few teams will have an answer for a 6-9 wing who can shoot it, drive it and pass it.

But Knox will have to embrace that role and play like he wants to be  the man all the time, not drift in and out of stone-cold killer mode.

RELATED: Will UK landed 5-stars Keldon Johnson, Zion Williamson?

The Cats can’t win it all if …

1. Vanderbilt doesn’t finish the season.

Kentucky can still be good without him, but it can only be great with him. You could argue that the Cats are loaded with talented forwards, but as we’ve already mentioned here: none of them can do as many things as Vanderbilt. He’s an excellent rebounder and would be a huge boost defensively.

Remember, after a dazzling run through the national all-star games in the spring, there was buzz about Vanderbilt being a potential top-10 NBA draft pick. He’s that good — when healthy.

2. Richards isn’t a reliable post presence.

For as much as Calipari wants to modernize the way Kentucky plays, utilizing “small ball” and his beloved positionless basketball, his best teams have had a dominant force inside, from Cousins to Davis to Cauley-Stein to Towns.

Richards is more raw than all of those, but he has real potential. He blocked eight shots in the Blue-White scrimmage and scored 17 points — 6 of 6 shooting, 5 of 5 at the line — in the final exhibition. He’s been working on an unguardable jump hook that looks better than expected.

He’s quick and athletic enough to play the way the Wildcats want to play, even at his size. The biggest stumbling block will be his propensity to pick up fouls, and that is a  major concern with Richards, but he managed not to draw a single whistle in the last exhibition game.

3. Diallo doesn’t stick to the plan.

Calipari said after one preseason game that if Diallo shoots 3-pointers, he’s coming out. Diallo clarified that his coach meant  ill-advised threes. Whichever is true, Diallo still isn’t a reliable outside shooter, and that’s fine — so long as he sticks to his strengths.

When Diallo is dialed in defensively and attacking the rim on offense, his status as one of the most explosive athletes in college basketball shines. When he loafs on defense and starts jacking up step-back threes on the other end, he hurts the Cats.

Kentucky needs the version of Diallo that showed up in the second half against Morehead State, when Diallo drove and finished and sank 4 of 5 field goals and 5 of 7 free throws on his way to 14 points in 13 minutes. He must leave (most of) the outside shooting to Green and Knox and focus on doing what he does best.

The post Kentucky Insider: Three reasons the Wildcats could win it all, three things that could sabotage them appeared first on SEC Country.

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