UK men’s basketball has been disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world

Eli Dyer, Editor-in-Chief

The University of Kentucky has a longstanding tradition of winning basketball. In fact, they’re the winningest team in college basketball, although the current season is cutting into their lead a bit. And their fans expect greatness from every player who steps foot on the court wearing a Kentucky jersey. Usually, the players deliver.

But between the pandemic, an almost entirely new roster, and a difficult schedule, the Kentucky basketball team has been struggling to cope. The team started the season 1-5, which as the commentators love to point out, is our worst start to a season since the 1926-27 season. We’ve pulled it back a little, to 5-12, but that’s still an extremely disappointing record for a basketball program as prestigious as UK’s. As my family often remarks, the commentators always seem to pick one fact to repeat game after game. Bam Adebayo got his nickname from flipping over a table as a kid while watching The Flintstones and yelling “Bam Bam!”. Skal Labissiere was pulled out of the rubble of an earthquake in Haiti. One of the Harrison twins is older by some number of seconds. This year, their favorite pastime has been to talk about things that were going on the last time Kentucky basketball was this bad.

Going into the season, it seemed as though it would be a regular Kentucky recruiting class, ranked the best class in the nation according to ESPN. We ended up with five of the ESPN 100 prospects: B.J. Boston (6), Terrance Clarke (9), Devin Askew (24), Isaiah Jackson (31), and Cam’Ron Fletcher (57). The large majority of those players have been disappointing, to say teh least. Boston has difficulties with decision making and is falling down the draft boards; Clarke has been injured most of the season; Askew seems to turn the ball over every time he gets the ball; and Cam’Ron Fletcher mysteriously was asked to step away from the team for a little while and hasn’t really played since. Only Isaiah Jackson has even come close to meeting expectations, and that’s based on pure athleticism. He isn’t great at guarding the perimeter, shooting, or offense in general, but he makes up for it in blocking shots. He blocks 15% of the shots while on the court. Not 15% of shots near him, 15% of all shots by the other team. As the commentators like to point out, that’s higher than Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. However, his offensive game is definitely not as developed as those two.

In addition to the best recruiting class in the nation, Calipari recruited three transfers: Davion Mintz (Senior) , Jacob Toppin (Sophomore), and Olivier Sarr (Senior). Mintz is a solid player, and Toppin was an investment for the future, but Sarr was supposed to be the crucial piece of this team. Coming in, some projected him to win SEC player of the year. Some games, he seems to live up to that, while others, he fails to score. Like the rest of the team, he has been inconsistent.

Kentucky also had two players return from the previous year: Keion Brooks Jr., who played minimal minutes, and Dontaie Allen, who played no minutes. We only returned one contributing player, meaning we probably lost about 99% of points scored.

And while many fans have been quick to blame the players, we have to remember that they’re just kids. Devin Askew was a junior in high school last year. I admit, I’ve been guilty of it too. I was even happy as booing could be heard in Rupp Arena after B.J. Boston took what seemed like his 100th pull up long two of the season. But that’s unacceptable. No Kentucky player should be booed in Rupp by Kentucky fans. And the assault over social media has been unwarranted. Isaiah Jackson said many of the players deleted their social media accounts to avoid the criticism.

But at least that criticism was based on something legitimate: the team’s poor performance. I was disappointed in the fanbase and the state after their response to the team kneeling during the anthem. Some burned their jerseys, saying they’d never support UK basketball again.

It’s been a tough year for men’s college basketball as a whole, not just Kentucky. And attacking and criticizing players on social media hasn’t helped the issue. I have to think that the response from Kentucky fans will not only affect this season, but might play a part in future recruiting. No one wants to come to a school where the fans will boo them or will attack them for taking a stand on racial injustice. I know that this is a vocal minority, but it’s still disappointing.

While this season has been hard to watch, the real fans will stick with Kentucky basketball. With Kentucky’s top notch facilities, coaching, and recruiting, it’s unlikely that we’ll stay bad for long. I even doubt we’ll be bad by the end of the season (certainly not as bad as when the season began) because many of the players have shown incredible growth, and the team has played well against several ranked opponents. Anyway, we’ll be back. You can’t keep the best program in college basketball down for long.