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Can Duke and Kentucky Turn Around Disappointing Seasons?

John Calipari
The idea of  the "one and done" has revolutionized college basketball. Teams continue to pick up big-time recruits with the promise of one year, of course required by the NBA, of college ball before they go onto bigger and better things. For many blue blood programs, the results of the rise of one-and-dones have been helpful. Kentucky used a young lineup to roll to a nearly perfect season last year, and Duke won with three freshman leading the way just last season. The Wildcats and Blue Devils were supposed to do the same thing this year; they were one and two in the recruiting rankings and did return some veterans. Instead, both teams have slumped mightily in conference play, and appear to be trending downward as March looms. Can they both turn it around before it is too late?

One-and-dones have been a staple of John Calipari's career, tracing back even to his time at Memphis. Over his coaching career, Calipari has led the likes of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and many more to the NBA after just one lone season at either Memphis or Kentucky. The situation seemed to be very similar this season. Sophomore Tyler Ulis was back, but freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe were going to star in the backcourt, while the nation's No. 2 recruit Skal Labissiere, was going to take over down low. Things haven't quite worked out that way this season though. The Wildcats haven't been atrocious, but their 16-6 start hasn't quite been what many fans expected after their dominant 2014-2015 campaign. Included in those six have been losses to Ohio State, Auburn and just last night, Tennessee, in which Kentucky squandered a 21-point lead. None of those three teams appear anywhere close to the NCAA Tournament level. But, what really is the problem with Kentucky? Inexperience has played a role, but that is just scratching the surface of their problems.

First off foremost, Kentucky is a terrible road team. Being a young team going into hostile environments, that is expected, but it has too change. Ulis plays with great poise no matter where he is, but that can't be said for everybody else on their roster. Kentucky's free-throw shooting is another major problem. Starting guard Isiah Briscoe is shooting just 40% from the line this season, and a number of the Wildcats' big men have struggled mightily at the line. For such a talented team, having such issues at the line is a major Achilles Heel. The Wildcats aren't a great three-point shooting team to begin with, forcing them to attack the rim more often, which in turn leads to free throws. Just as problematic as their woes on the road and at the line is just the plain lack of depth in the frontcourt. Kentucky lost Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Anthony-Towns, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson all early to the NBA this past season, and they have been very thin up front. Alex Poythress has been playing big minutes, but he is undersized for the power forward. Marcus Lee and Derek Willis are two veterans that have stepped up when called on, but Lee is very limited offensively, and Willis lacks the true inside game to be a high quality stater. And then, there is the troubling Skal Labissiere. Labissiere has been maybe the most disappointing recruit in recent memory. A consensus five-star prospect, rated widely as the top high school player not named Ben Simmons, and hailed as the "Haitian Sensation" prior to the season by Sports Illustrated, Labissiere just hasn't done a lot. He clearly has potential, he is pretty athletic and has shown the ability to stretch the floor. But, he just hasn't shown the toughness to compete at the college basketball level, and has been limited to 16.8 minutes per game on the year. When their frontcourt gets in foul trouble, the Wildcats become extremely limited, which is exactly what happened against Kansas less than a week ago.

The problems that have plagued Kentucky all year long can also be traced to another blue blood program, over in North Carolina. Duke won it all a year ago and then much like Kentucky, was gutted for the NBA. Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor all decided to go pro, leaving this Blue Devils' lineup unbelievably young. That youth has definitely been a major contributor in Duke's 16-6 start. That troubling start has included some rough losses and has contributed to Duke falling out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2007. Talent isn't a problem over at Duke either. Grayson Allen is one of the most explosive players in the country, Brandon Ingram is crazy athletic and the rest of the frontcourt has some nice pieces. But, the problems that plague the youthful Wildcats also have troubled the Blue Devils all year long.

On their homecourt, Duke is one of the nation's toughest teams, no matter who else is on the court. The "Cameron Crazies" are such a big part of the sport, and Duke just finds ways to win on their own floor. But, this season, Duke has been rather average on their homecourt. They have suffered three losses on their own floor this season, including a number of heartbreakers, like a two-point loss to Utah, and losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse. They have also struggled in certain venues on the road, and the ACC is such an unforgiving conference these days. A major problem for Duke is their issues at point guard; Quinn Cook and Jones were so terrific last season. But, both of their departures left Duke without a true point guard until Derryck Thornton signed on late. Thornton hasn't been terrible; he has shown plenty of signs of progress. But, he hasn't shown a complete grasp of the Duke offense and has been a liability late in games. Outside of Thornton, the Blue Devils lack a true point guard. Allen and Matt Jones can bring the ball up, but the depth at one of the game's most important positions has become a major problem that could plague Duke deep into March. The Blue Devils are also thin in the frontcourt, due to the loss of Amile Jefferson. A senior, Jefferson was putting together a fine season before a foot injury. He should be back before the NCAA Tournament (assuming Duke does get there) but his absence has forced guys like Ingram, Luke Kennard and Mason Plumlee to not only play more minutes, but play uncomfortable roles for them. Also hurting Duke's frontcourt has been the complete absence of true freshman Chase Jeter, a highly sought after recruit who just hasn't caught up to the college game.

Can these two teams turn it around before March inevitably comes around? Both teams have enough name recognition and decent-enough resumes to get into the Field of 68, assuming they don't completely crash and burn before then. For Kentucky, they have a very important stretch of games upcoming, playing Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M over the coming weeks. They need to not only win some of those games, but play well enough to prove they belong in the tourney field. This is a program that has turned it around late in the season before; as evidenced by their 2013-2014 team, which rolled to the Final Four as an eight seed. That team had great backcourt play when they needed it most, and this team should get plenty of contributions from Ulis, Murray and Briscoe late in the year. The Blue Devils also have a pivotal stretch of games upcoming, with meetings against Louisville twice, UNC and Virginia upcoming. Those games may be daunting but wins could go a long way in helping build a resume.

These two teams are too talented not to figure it out, or so it appears. Kentucky needs to work on their free throw shooting and closing out games, while Duke not only needs Jefferson back desperately and their two best players, Allen and Ingram, to show up in big games. These two teams can turn it around and possibly even make some noise come March, but there remain some big questions they have to fill before then.

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