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College basketball: Is it time to worry about the Kentucky Wildcats?

After several seasons of unexpected mediocrity, Kentucky could be going down the same path. Or is a Quad 4 loss at home just part of the process?

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with guard Rob Dillingham during the first half against the Miami Hurricanes at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Kentucky Wildcats in trouble? Just when Big Blue Nation was starting to believe again?

The ‘Cats fell 80-73 to UNC-Wilmington last Saturday in one of the biggest upsets in college basketball this season. UK closed as a 17.5-point favorite at DraftKings Sportsbook, and for a team that seemed to have righted the ship with a new roster, it appeared to be a significant setback.

With a young roster and only a very excusable 89-84 loss on a neutral floor to the No. 2 ranked Kansas Jayhawks before their last outing, it appeared head coach John Calipari had begun to turn things around for perhaps the most demanding fan base of any NCAA team in any sport.

Kentucky has won only one (1!) NCAA Tournament game since 2019. The 2020 SEC regular season champions were cut short by the pandemic, and a nightmare 9-16 campaign followed. The record for the following two seasons was a combined 48-20, which at most places is fine. But Lexington is not most places. And with Oscar Tshiebwe now gone from the low block, how would the new players hold up?

Kentucky’s starting lineup has mostly been two seniors in guard Antonio Reeves and well-traveled center Tre Mitchell, with three true freshmen in point guard Reed Sheppard, swingman Justin Edwards, and shooting guard D.J. Wagner. And things seemed pretty great after an impressive 95-73 pasting of the Miami Hurricanes, a 2023 Final Four team with plenty of returning pieces.

That made the loss to UNCW four nights later all that more surprising, with UK having 45 possessions with one or no passes while being beaten 14-5 on second-chance points.

Wagner missed the UNCW game with an ankle sprain sustained late against Miami. The progeny of Coach Cal’s former Memphis star Dajuan Wagner and grandson of former operations director Milt Wagner, the Camden, New Jersey native averaged 13.1 points and 3.3 assists per game over the first seven contests.

But this is probably not a Kentucky team to be faded for long, as Wagner’s return will help steady the ship on the offensive end. He’s an outstanding driver of the basketball and a willing passer, which should take plenty of pressure off a team that wants to run as much as possible against lesser opponents.

Last year, Kentucky was the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in America behind Tshiebwe according to KenPom, but just 178th in effective field goal percentage, and 68th in adjusted defense. This year’s version is 290th on the offensive glass, but sixth in eFG% and 10th in adjusted offense.

The zig-zag in production is startling, but like most teams in the Coach Cal Era, they are building the plane as they fly it due to roster turnover. Kentucky should be able to find a winning rotation by the middle of conference play with four five-star talents on the roster. Adding 7’1” five-star Aaron Bradshaw, who played 13 minutes vs. the Seahawks after fewer than two practices with his teammates, should help on the block as well.

If the Wildcats can stay healthy, it appears this is more a blip than a continuing crisis for the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky is 4-4 against the spread, and that feels about right for a team with an inconsistent squad with a high ceiling.

They’ll look to get a bit closer to the finished product against the Penn Quakers on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.