Ahead of Saturday's game against Kentucky, the Kansan caught up with Kentucky Kernel sports editor Josh Ellis to talk about the upcoming game, the chances of Kentucky coach John Calipari leaving for the NBA and why Kentucky has struggled so much at times this year.
While the Wildcats only have four losses on the season, their play has been concerning to some. They've lost four games to four different unranked teams, and they really lack some sort of signature win, although a road victory over Kansas would certainly provide that.
University Daily Kansan: Kansas vs. Kentucky. How big is this game?
Josh Ellis, Kentucky Kernel sports editor: "This is the biggest game on UK's schedule this year. Probably before the season started you would've said [the biggest would be against] Duke or Kansas, or maybe Louisville — we didn't know how good they were going to be. It's especially big that it's in Kansas. I can't really remember how long it's been since UK played in Lawrence, but I think the fact that it's in Lawrence makes the stage even bigger, especially with Kansas doing so well this year — although I know they lost the other night to Iowa State.
"But the fact that it's at Kansas just hypes it up even more. And the fact that UK has basically been struggling to find an identity [does too]. They haven't really had consistent post play this year, but the guards have done pretty well — Ulis has had seven 20-point games this year."
UDK: Ulis has been solid, but the team has struggled. In a season where Kentucky comes in ranked in the top five, what's been the most notable absence?
JE: "One of the biggest curveballs, one of the biggest things that isn't working this year, is Skal Labissiere. He was up there with (LSU's) Ben Simmons as the talk for the No. 1 draft pick this year, and he really just hasn't produced. The second game of the season, he had 26 points, but other than that he just hasn't really met expectations at the least. [Kentucky coach John Calipari] really didn't expect him to play as bad as he has been playing.
"(Forward) Alex Poythress is a senior this year, and I think the post play is probably the biggest thing that's hurt UK this year. They don't know on a night-in, night-out basis how well [the big men will play]. Marcus Lee has been out of the starting lineup. I think really just overall the frontcourt has been the biggest surprise in the negative way for UK right now — especially Skal."
UDK: How have the expectations changed for UK through that disappointment?
JE: "I think they've been tempered a little bit, especially after the Auburn loss. I don't think very many people at all would've expected that Auburn loss. I think by far that was the worst loss of the year.
"I think before, if you had asked me this question after the UK, U of [Louisville] game, which UK won by two points, I would've said, 'Yeah, I think UK still has a pretty good chance to run the table in the SEC.' But as you can see they've had clear problems that haven't really been there for the past few teams.
"This is almost like the 2011 team when Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson and Doron Lamb went to the final four. They didn't have that good of a year to begin with. They had some slumps in SEC play. Right now, for expectations though, I still think a Final Four is doable, just because of how well Cal coaches his team late in the year. You saw that two years ago when they played Wichita State and they were the eight-seed. [That year] they went all the way to the National Championship.
"I think [with] how good Cal is in March and April — I think fans still expect at least a Final Four or maybe an Elite Eight, but [the expectations] have been tempered just because of the shocking losses like at Auburn and LSU."
UDK: The confidence in Cal seems to be strong, but how strong does BBN feel about him staying? After Cavaliers coach David Blatt was fired, was there ever a split second where fans were worried he might leave?
JE: "It's funny that you ask that. It's almost like anytime there's ever an NBA job open, the first name that automatically comes from anybody is Calipari. It's like the Nets almost wanted him. He coached the Nets previously; they almost wanted him [again]. The Kings have been asking him. He had chances to go other places. Now, [coaching] the Cavs [is] probably the hottest job in the NBA, as you get to coach the best player in the world.
"Cal's name definitely did come up but just knowing how Cal has dealt with it in the past — there's obviously always a chance, but I didn't think it was a serious threat for him to leave. He's always been so quick to shoot down any rumors. He's really quick at responding with that, and I think his path is just kind of solidified that he's going to be at UK this season and then probably for years after that."
UDK: Staying with the NBA theme, how much of a boost does it provide seeing John Wall, Anthony Davis and all these great players in the NBA?
JE: "I think it helps [recruiting]. I think it helps it a lot. If you go in the UK basketball practice facility, they actually have a picture of all the UK players in the NBA on the wall. It's a huge, huge, huge recruiting tool because when they bring these high school kids in and they see 20 NBA players all that went to Kentucky, they're thinking, 'What other college programs have this many players in the NBA?'
"And not only do they have that many players in the NBA, but they also have that many significant or important players — players that matter basically; they don't come off the bench.
"UK still has a good amount of D-League players but [with] players like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins — he's been going off lately — and Anthony Davis, — these players are starting to be franchise players and All-Stars. I think it really helps the program. It's a really great recruiting tool that Cal has, and it's good for BBN because Kentucky doesn't have an NBA team, but they can cheer for almost any NBA team with just about any UK player on it."
UDK: In a down year, how does Calipari keep that NBA talent coming? How does he get the program to bounce back?
JE: "Assuming Cal stays, this year, I don't know how far [the team can go]. It'll depend on the frontcourt, how consistent they play. If Skal can work himself into the offense — Cal tried to play him at the post a little bit; he's gone away from that, having him shoot at the elbow a little bit more.
"UK has a great class again next year: Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and a bunch of other guys. Next year, I think UK will be very good. I think minimum expectations are a Final Four, because that's how good they can be. It'll kind of depend on who stays or who goes, but within the next three years there's a good chance that there will be at least one Final Four in there, and there's probably at least a 50 or 60 percent chance that there's at least National Championship appearance [...] I think next season will probably be one of the better ones Cal has at UK."