Five things Texas fans need to know about Kentucky basketball for Big 12/SEC Challenge
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Texas at Kentucky was supposed to be the marquee matchup in the 2021 Big 12/SEC Challenge, but only one of the involved teams has held up its side of the bargain.
While the Longhorns enter the game ranked No. 5 in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, Kentucky is still trying to rally from the program’s worst start to a season since 1927.
Texas fans, here are five things to know about the Wildcats.
1. Historic struggles
Kentucky entered the season ranked No. 9 nationally in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, but John Calipari’s team long ago proved unworthy of that hype. After winning its season opener against Morehead State, Kentucky lost its next six games. The 1-6 start was the program’s worst since the 1926-27 season. The six-game losing streak was the team’s longest at any point of a season since 1988-89. Kentucky looked on the verge of a turnaround after capping a three-game winning streak to open Southeastern Conference play with a blowout win at Florida but has lost four of five since.
2. A new-look team
Calipari has built his success at Kentucky by turning the program into a NBA draft pick factory that consistently has to replace most of its starting lineup each season, but even the Hall of Fame coach is not used to the amount of roster turnover facing his team this season. Sophomore forward Keion Brooks, who averaged just 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman, is the only returning player who scored a point in a game for UK last season, and he did not play in the first nine games of the season due to a leg injury. All 10 scholarship players who appeared in the season opener were making their Kentucky debuts.
3. Lacking a star
Freshman guards Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke, both ranked as consensus top-10 recruits in the high school class of 2020, were projected to be instant stars and likely NBA draft lottery picks in 2021. Instead, neither player has lived up to the hype, as of yet. Boston leads Kentucky in scoring (12.1 points per game) but is shooting just 36.4% from the field and 18% (9 for 50) from 3-point range. Clarke, who has missed the last eight games with an ankle injury and is not expected to play on Saturday, is shooting 43.1% from the field and 22.7% (5 for 22) from 3-point range. The two freshmen have combined for 32 assists and 47 turnovers.
4. Player to watch
One of the few positives Kentucky fans have been able to get excited about this season is the play of redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen. One of the rare local high school stars to earn a scholarship offer from Kentucky in the Calipari era, Allen missed all of last season while rehabbing from a torn ACL. Calipari was reluctant to play him early this year but was left little choice after Clarke’s injury. Allen responded with 23 points in a double-overtime win over Mississippi State in his first significant action. The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter has come back to Earth since, but he remains one of the few threats in what has been a dreadful half-court offense as the team’s only player shooting better than 32% from 3-point range. Allen has made 23 of 50 3s on the season.
5. No home-court advantage
Kentucky has reduced capacity at Rupp Arena to 15% (around 3,000 fans) during the COVID-19 pandemic, so do not expect the crowd to play much of a factor Saturday. The Wildcats have already lost to Richmond, Notre Dame and Alabama at home. Vanderbilt, winless in SEC play, had two shots at a possible game-tying 3 on the final possession that could have sent its game in Rupp Arena to overtime and handed Kentucky the first three-game losing streak in arena history. Alabama beat Kentucky 85-65 on Jan. 12, marking the worst home loss in Calipari’s 12 seasons as coach.
Jon Hale is the Kentucky beat reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.