Evansville’s upset of No. 1 Kentucky sends clear message to college basketball’s top programs

There was a time in college basketball’s past that the best teams were so powerful that a result such as Evansville 67, Kentucky 64 was close to unimaginable. This never would have occurred with Indiana’s Hoosiers in 1975, with North Carolina’s Tar Heels in 1981 or with UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels in 1990.

It wouldn’t have happened, even, with the Duke Blue Devils of 12 months ago.

This is not the story in 2019. The Evansville victory over the top-ranked Wildcats was a clear message to this season’s most respected teams: You ain’t all that.

When it was time to rank the teams in the preseason for 2019-20, the top choice was easy. Michigan State began with a reigning first-team All-American, seven of the top 10 scorers from a team that won dual Big Ten Conference championships and reached the Final Four and a well-regarded recruiting class. Before the Spartans even played a game, the second-best of their players suffered a recurrence of a foot injury, and suddenly Sparty was no longer unassailable.

Everyone else that even entered the conversation either was highly dependent on the top freshmen from a national recruiting class known to be uncommonly weak or carried significant uncertainties or apparent flaws into the season. No. 4 Duke’s three-man starting frontcourt was entirely composed of freshmen in its Champions Classic victory over No. 3 Kansas. The Jayhawks have three pure post players, none of whom is comfortable playing away from the basket on offense or defense.

Kentucky brought back one starter and three other regulars from last season’s Elite Eight team, then complemented that group with another esteemed recruiting class: small forward Khalil Whitney, shooter Johnny Juzang, stretch-4 Keion Brooks and, the jewel of the class, combo guard Tyrese Maxey. All of them should be fine — or better — college players in time. Only Maxey seems equipped to make an immediate, transformative impact.

This should not be unexpected, though. You can almost see the sweat stains adorning the various mock drafts that greeted the start of the college season. They’re putting freshmen up high because someone must be at the top of the list. There are only so many international prospects, and there haven’t yet been enough games to determine whether there are a few guys on the order of Buddy Hield or Mikal Bridges among the college veterans.

And, truth is, there probably aren’t.

It’s one of those years like 2009-10, 2012-13 or 2015-16, when the freshman class just happens to be a little less gifted. Because of the age-limit rule and the premature early entry of many draft prospects, college basketball has become largely dependent on the quality of its freshman class to elevate the quality of the competition.

When the top freshmen are on the order of a Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in 2018-19, or Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2011-12, or when the group as a whole is so powerful a talent like T.J. Leaf in 2016-17 can’t crack the top 15, the quality of play among the championship contenders is greater. Teams know winning a championship is going to require an effort like Duke delivered in 2015, or Virginia just a few months ago.

Kentucky entered its Evansville game without starting power forward E.J. Montgomery and with several key regulars playing hurt. That made the Wildcats’ defeat less implausible, but no more excusable. The Purple Aces had to perform well, and the 18 points from guard K.J. Riley and the 17 from Kansas transfer Sam Cunliffe were huge. But they didn’t have to play brilliantly. As a team, the Purple Aces shot 38.3 percent and committed 14 turnovers. They made only 9-of-30 (30.0 percent) from 3-point range.

Kentucky’s had games like this with its freshmen before: against the Miami RedHawks in 2009, but John Wall’s astonishing individual talent rescued the Wildcats; against Southern Illinois last year, when Keldon Johnson led UK to a double-digit win in the end. This UK team might ultimately win a championship, but it is not initially overwhelming.

“We worked for a month, maybe longer, on toughness because I knew that would be a key,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters after the game. “And we reverted today. You saw a team that was way tougher than us. Their guards were more physical and tougher. We couldn’t post the ball… we couldn’t hold position in the post. We couldn’t come off screens… all the toughness.”

This wasn’t a miracle. This wasn’t like UMBC’s exquisite execution of No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed Virginia in March 2018. This simply was an upset.

It probably won’t be the last of the 2019-20 season, which won’t be a work of athletic art — but it will be a blast.

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