Live. Breathe. Blue. Kentucky Basketball’s Juggernaut: Men versus Machines

by Dr. John Huang (LEXINGTON, KY)
Men or machines? Kenny Payne and John Calipari vehemently disagree. Photo credit: Dr. Michael Huang Men or machines? Kenny Payne and John Calipari vehemently disagree. Photo credit: Dr. Michael Huang

Eleven games into the regular season, most would agree that the biggest strength of this Kentucky basketball team lies in its balance. When push comes to shove, there are numerous ways in which Coach John Calipari’s crew can lower the hammer.

Since we’ve got a little time between games, let’s go ahead and count the ways.

First things first. It’s no secret that this Kentucky team is deep, talented, and hungry. Offensively, they’re likely as skilled as any of Coach Cal’s previous Wildcat squads. Every scholarship player can dribble, pass, and shoot. They’re all unselfish, team-oriented, and seem to get along fine and dandy with each other off the court.

Unlike last year, if Antonio Reeves’ shot isn’t falling, three other teammates on this year’s team can take up the slack. If Aaron Bradshaw ever gets into foul trouble, just bring on another seven-footer in Ugonna Onyenso to swat shots away. DJ Wagner can drive to the basket anytime the offense stagnates. And Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham generate unmatched excitement and enthusiasm anytime they’re on the floor.

As long as we’re zeroing in on the entire roster of the eighth-ranked team in the nation, let’s not forget about Justin Edwards. The latest McDonald’s All-American has been a bit of a disappointment thus far. But he’s so athletic and skilled that it’s just a matter of time before he makes an impact. And don’t underestimate Tre Mitchell. The West Virginia transfer adds a much-needed dose of leadership and maturity as well as a heck of an outside shot for a big man.

And how about Thiero? Don’t mind if Adou (Ugh, sorry). This guy brings toughness, rebounding, and hustle the moment he checks into the lineup. Even Jordan Burks has shown enough flashes to warrant some utility minutes if foul trouble or injuries suddenly hit.

“They’re a machine,” Louisville head coach Kenny Payne said when asked to describe Kentucky after the Wildcats overwhelmed the Cardinals 95 – 76 in the Yum Center last Thursday. “They keep coming at you and at you and at you.”

Anybody who has followed Kentucky Basketball over the years knows that John Calipari disagrees vehemently with Payne. How many times have we heard the Hall of Fame coach describe his players this way?

“They’re NOT machines,” Calipari would retort if ever one of his star pupils had a bad game.

So, which way is it? Men or machines? That is the question.

The beauty of this year’s team is that it really doesn’t matter. Unlike previous versions, if a machine part fails this year, the next man up can easily step into place. That hasn’t always been a luxury in Calipari’s tenure to date.

Take out the best player on each of the Kentucky teams in the Calipari era, and you’ll find a team that’s a significant downgrade from its former self.

Think about it. The 2010 team without John Wall or the 2011 team sans Brandon Knight certainly wouldn’t have been Final Four caliber. Minus Anthony Davis, that 2012 team wouldn’t have sniffed a national title. We all saw what happened in 2013 without Nerlins Noel. That befuddled team didn’t even make the tournament.

How about 2014 without Julius Randle? Or the 2015 team missing Karl-Anthony Towns? Or 2016 minus Jamal Murray, 2017 without De’Aaron Fox, 2018 without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 2019 missing P.J. Washington, 2020 without Tyrese Maxey, 2021 minus Isaiah Jackson, or 2022 and 2023 without Oscar Tshiebwe.

The point being that if you took out any one of those critical parts, the entire machine often would grind to a temporary halt. One bad night and they’d bounce you unceremoniously from the NCAA tournament.

Hopefully, that’s not so with this year’s version. As we’ve seen already, an occasional off night or even missing a few games here and there hasn’t really affected the team as a whole. Someone always manages to step up and effectively plug the hole.

One of Coach Cal’s strengths has always been his ability to balance talented rosters. Success or failure this year depends more so than ever on his ability to properly plug and play. He’s got to keep everyone involved, committed, and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

For Calipari, managing minutes is key. An invested player makes for a happy player. As long as everyone feels they’re contributing to the team’s success, I like the team’s chances for a legitimate Final Four run. A positive, cohesive mindset in men goes a long, long way.

For that reason alone, I like this team. And that’s why I’ll take men over machines any day of the week.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. Currently, he serves as a reporter and sports columnist for Nolan Group Media. His latest book, ‘They Call Me Mr. Secretary,’ debuted as a top new release. You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs and check out all his books at

phil malicote