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Kentucky might be back? The Wildcats and their freshmen

The Wildcats rank in the top 10 and can score, while also protecting the ball as well as anyone. Are Cal’s Kids a threat for the Final Four?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Kentucky Wildcats really, truly... back? Can we say it? John Calipari’s young squad has put together quite the start to the 2023-24 season, with wins over North Carolina, Miami, and Florida already.

The start hasn’t been without its pitfalls — close losses to Texas A&M and Kansas sit next to a shocking fall against UNC Wilmington — but after several seasons of passable mediocrity coming out of Lexington, there may finally be hope for a deep playoff run.

The Wildcats rank 19th overall at KenPom, and eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their defense has fallen somewhat short in comparison, landing at 54th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They average 90.8 points per game, ranking second in the nation, and shoot 49.3% from the field which is 11th overall.

But more impressive is they just don’t turn the ball over; you don’t see teams this young that rank third in turnover percentage, giving it away on just 12.8% of possessions.

Antonio Reeves leads the Wildcats in scoring with 18.9 points per game, and is one of five players who averages in the double digits in scoring. And perhaps even more impressively, three of the team’s top five scorers — DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, and Reed Sheppard — are freshmen. Faced with a situation where losing All-American Oscar Tshiebwe could have sent the team flailing, Calipari’s recruits have more than filled the hole left by his departure to the NBA. More players were given the opportunity to step up, and step up they have.

But the defensive lapses have been a recurring issue for Calipari’s Kentucky teams over the last few years. The Wildcats likely won’t be able to make it all the way without addressing that issue, but this start is hopeful in looking ahead to a postseason run. Kentucky lost in the first two rounds in each of their last two NCAA Tournament, failing to even reach the Big Dance for the two seasons previous (one thanks to COVID). The last NCAA win was in 2019, and that’s just not good enough for UK.

Their five-point loss to No. 3 Kansas on a neutral floor in November tells you all you need to know about this team — that they can hang with the top dogs, and even outplay them in most areas, but they need to be able to develop their defense enough to win those kinds of games. And having those freshmen be sophomores in terms of experience by March will help.

For members of the Blue Mist, you’ve got to have a reason to believe in this team despite a tough loss last Saturday in College Station. Kentucky appears to be back. And if a few of the freshman stick around in Lexington and continue their development, they might be the favorite for the title in 2024-25.