So much of the discourse around this college basketball season is going to center on the lack of great teams in Division I men’s basketball. There’s a variety of reasons for this phenomenon to be occurring.
Players continue to leave for the NBA early in their college careers, lessening the overall talent pool and individual program’s abilities to build a great team. This year, more than ever, many of the top high school prospects won’t even step on a college basketball court. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton are playing in Australia. James Wiseman has left Memphis after his suspension by the NCAA.
In addition, the emergence of recruiting success by schools like Memphis and Washington has decreased the potential ceiling of teams like Duke and Kentucky that typically haul in an inordinate amount of the top ranked recruits. On top of all that, transferring is as popular as ever, with graduate transfers shifting the landscape every summer.
It’s fitting that a season like this is occurring at the end of the decade when many pundits and analysts are releasing lists of the best teams since 2010. If this year was to be considered for such lists, it’s unlikely any team from this young season would be on track to fit into the top 10 or even top 20.
Contrast that to the most top-heavy year in recent memory, 2014-15, and the differences are stark. That season featured six teams with an adjusted efficiency margin above 30, per KenPom. This season, only Duke is even above 28 in that statistic. The 2015 editions of Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Arizona are among the best teams we have seen in recent memory. Three made the Final Four. The fourth, Arizona, lost to Wisconsin in a classic Elite Eight tilt. Any of those four would stand as a clear favorite to win it all in 2020 if they’d hopped into a time machine. The same is probably true of the Virginia, Villanova, and Gonzaga teams from that season.
The Time Machine Test probably works out for at least three teams from every year of the past decade. Great teams that were knocked out of the tournament by even better teams, like 2018 Duke, 2017 Gonzaga, 2017 Kentucky, 2016 Kansas, 2012 Syracuse, and plenty more would relish the chance to exist in a season like our current situation.
There is plenty of time still in 2020 for teams to develop into the type of team we remember and that March opponents fear. Duke is 12-1 with a key player injured. Kansas has only lost at Villanova and versus that very Duke team, with a 10-2 record against the 8th toughest schedule in America. You’re more than welcome to insert a theory for why Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Butler, Oregon, or Baylor could become the team to beat this season.
One team I’m particularly intrigued by is Kentucky.
Big Blue has three losses on the season, each offering a different story about the Cats season so far. On December 18, Kentucky shot 2 for 17 from outside the arc and lost to a Utah team that made 8 of 15 from long range in Las Vegas. Three days later, still in Sin City, the Wildcats lost to Ohio State, unable to get crucial stops down the stretch. Perhaps most notably, Kentucky lost a home game to an Evansville team that has since lost its head coach to a Title IX investigation and has lost games to Missouri State, East Carolina, and Jacksonville State.
That’s somewhat expected for a team as young as Kentucky, ranking 342nd in the nation in college basketball experience. Still, those losses, and Kentucky’s performance in some of its wins, are a black mark on a team that could be talented enough to win the national championship.
Yet over the past two weeks, Kentucky has re-emerged in the Final Four conversation, due to the play of Tyrese Maxey. The freshman has become the Wildcats’ best, and most important player, showcasing that in Kentucky’s recent tilts with Ohio State and Louisville.
As Maxey goes this season, so too go the Wildcats. In Kentucky’s wins this season, Maxey is shooting 35 percent from long range, 89 percent at the free throw line, and dishing out nearly four assists per game, to just two turnovers. When Kentucky’s offense is humming successfully, it’s Maxey most frequently making plays and scoring.
In Kentucky’s losses, Maxey is shooting 14 percent from long range, only 71 percent at the line, and averaging twice as many turnovers as assists (2.7 to 1.3). Just three losses thus far makes some of those statistics a bit noisy due to sample size, yet the eye-test backs up my theory.
When Maxey is playing efficiently and effectively as Kentucky’s primary initiator, he makes good things happen. When he slinks into the background, in favor of Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, or he oversteps his abilities and tries to do too much, the Kentucky offense sputters.
As a top 10 recruit at Kentucky, it’s tempting to compare Maxey to John Calipari’s guards in the past. That’s unfair to Maxey in many respects. He’s not the prospect or the athlete that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, DeAaron Fox, Jamal Murray, John Wall, or Derrick Rose were at the same point in their careers. His skill-set is unique and unpolished.
At this point in his development, Maxey is an inconsistent shooter, with 11 of his 16 threes on the season coming in just 3 of Kentucky’s 12 games. When his shot is working, it’s an effective weapon in his offensive arsenal.
When he takes his time to load and shoot, it’s a good looking shot:
When he catches in rhythm, it’s even better looking.
Despite the look of his shot, he’s only sinking 30 percent of his outside shots. Remove his two hot shooting nights (Kentucky’s first game and its most recent), and he shot just 22 percent from long range over a ten game stretch.
Effective shooting opens up everything he’s looking to do offensively. He’s not lightning quick like other guards his size, but his first step is confident and effective.
Without the leaping ability and athleticism of a Wall or Rose, Maxey is forced into tougher finishes around the rim. He isn’t dunking over people. Yet Maxey is a smart finisher, with his eyes always staying on the rim. He has an innate ability to hang in the air, outlasting and outmatching tall defenders. This clutch bucket against Louisville proves that point:
If that ball takes the wrong bounce off of the rim, the shot and the decision to shoot it become much more questionable. When Maxey’s first step is foiled by a quicker defender, he sometimes settles in the mid-range:
Those mid-range jumpers are a low-reward proposition in his game. When he has the time to set and shoot, they work. When they feel rushed, he’d be better kicking out, finding his way to the rim, or steering more towards his floater, which he’s shown the ability to hit with even a shred of space from defenders:
Without elite athleticism, Maxey’s drives into the lane can be an adventure. He succeeds by finding space or drawing contact, but Maxey’s path to the rim isn’t always a smooth one and he can have a tendency to have his shot blocked or draw a charge.
My personal opinions about that charge call, or most offensive foul calls in college basketball, notwithstanding, that trend is an issue. If Maxey isn’t able to sense defenders within the paint, he leaves himself susceptible to the whims of every sideline zebra (most of whom seem as if calling a charge is the only true joy left in their life).
So where does all of this leave Maxey?
He’s a below the rim player without the agility to get exactly where he needs to be. He’s also a scorer with a nose for contact and for the rim, a deft finisher inside of 10 feet, and streaky outside shooter. There’s two sides to the Tyrese Maxey coin and landing on one of those two opens up a chance for Kentucky to make a run in March.
There’s a world where Kentucky’s sophomore guards, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, catch fire and find a rhythm or a world where the Wildcats’ are led by strong play by their veteran frontcourt.
Yet in reality, the most likely outcomes for Big Blue rest on the shoulders of Maxey.
If Maxey continues to be as much trick as he is treat, Kentucky will struggle to answer the call in big games and could be beaten in the early stages of March’s NCAA Tournament.
If, in the midst of SEC play, he can shake his bad habits and become a reliable go-to-scorer for Coach Calipari, these Wildcats could be national champions. In this year of parity, the path is there and Maxey holds the ticket. Trouble is, at this point in his development in his freshman season, that ticket might be a lottery ticket that gets ripped up with hopes of better luck next year.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.