The season started early for Kentucky men's basketball, which finished 4-0 against a collection of teams during an exhibition trip to the Bahamas that concluded Sunday. The Wildcats played four games in five days and showcased the talent and promise that elevated the program to the No. 1 slot in ESPN.com's Way Too Early Top-25 poll after Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis joined the squad over the summer.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats defeated the Bahamas select team 85-61 before recording a 91-68 victory over San Lorenzo, an Argentinian professional squad, the next day. Then they beat Mega Bemax, a professional team from Serbia, 100-64 on Saturday before ending the exhibition trip Sunday with a 93-60 win over Team Toronto, a squad full of Canadian talent.
It was far more than a tropical vacation for a program that is expected to compete for John Calipari's second national title in 2018-19. Here's what we learned:
Kentucky deserves the No. 1 preseason ranking
Kentucky is stacked at every position. Usually, when Calipari boasts teams with depth, he ends the year in the Final Four. And these Wildcats have everything. In the Bahamas, PJ Washington looked like a potential force who could lead this team to Minneapolis, site of the Final Four this season. Keldon Johnson is a star. Travis is a monster and the possible anchor of the nation's scariest bench rotation.
The Wildcats are long in the paint. They're quick and capable of matching up against any opponent due to their versatility. And they're diverse. Their post players can defend smaller guards. Their guards have enough size to guard bigger players. This is one of those Kentucky squads that can beat elite teams with unstoppable transition attacks or with the inside-outside balance of its half-court game.
Granted, it's not wise to get too excited about any action that unfolds against midtier professional squads from Serbia and Argentina on a tropical island in August. But this might be the most talented Kentucky team since the squad that started the season 38-0 in 2014-15.
Bill Self has, arguably, the most talented team of his tenure at Kansas. Mark Few and Gonzaga could complete his second Final Four run in three years. Tennessee is a dangerous team that returns the key contributors from a squad that won a share of the SEC title last season. Duke and the No. 1 recruiting class in America could have a special season too.
But Kentucky is a step above the field right now. Its trip to the Bahamas was its chance to show the world how dangerous it could become if everyone stays healthy between now and April. There are a handful of legit squads vying for the top spot in the polls, but Kentucky deserves it.
Kentucky proves presumed weakness might not be cause for concern
The Wildcats shot 2-for-20 from the 3-point line in their win over the Bahamas select team, their first game of the trip. That effort seemed to highlight the one concern for this squad: perimeter shooting. Calipari's teams have never relied on 3-point shooting. But when he reached the Final Four in 2011 (39.7 percent) and won the national title in 2012 (37.8 percent), the Wildcats could make those shots. He hasn't had a team that finished in the top 50 nationally in 3-point percentage since then.
The Wildcats couldn't hit any shots in their debut in the Bahamas. But they made 50 percent of their 3-pointers in the next three games (24-for-48). Freshman Tyler Herro made 10 of 16 during that stretch.
With 103 teams using 40 percent or more of their shot attempts on 3-pointers last season, it's critical that the Wildcats have the ability to make perimeter shots. Their final three games last week minimized the concern about their ability to do that.
Defensive questions remain
Calipari told reporters that he didn't focus on defense in the buildup to this trip. But it's still the one challenge from last season that he'll have to address. This season, he has the size and athleticism to generate an excellent defense.
Last year, however, some of the same players on this squad couldn't help the Wildcats escape their defensive problems. In SEC play, Kentucky's No. 1 3-point defense was countered by a defense inside the perimeter ranked 13th in league play (52 percent clip allowed).
In the Bahamas, Kentucky occasionally encountered some of the same challenges that befuddled the program last season: failure to recover in transition, poor efforts against opponents attacking the rim, surrendering open looks off pump fakes and getting beaten off the dribble. San Lorenzo made 62 percent of its shots inside the arc. The Wildcats' other opponents didn't have the same success.
Another finish at the bottom of the SEC standings in any defensive category could cost Kentucky the conference title and a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament. It's the biggest question facing this talented group.
Travis adds size, but Stanford was an average defensive squad when he was on the floor (1.02 points per possession allowed) and when he was on the bench (1.03 PPP allowed). We didn't see much of E.J. Montgomery, the 6-foot-11 freshman, due to injury. But they'll both have to help this imposing frontcourt play the elite defense around the rim that has fueled the best Kentucky squads under Calipari.
Three of the four Kentucky teams that reached the Final Four under Calipari led the SEC in defense inside the arc. It matters. If the Wildcats evolve into a consistent defensive juggernaut, they'll end the season with a title.
Yes, it's far too early to judge or criticize Kentucky's defense. But this is the only thing, it seems, that would stop the Wildcats from a trip to Minneapolis in April.
Calipari might make history with seven players averaging double figures
No team in the past 20 years has had seven players average 10.0 points per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Calipari's dream of fielding a squad with "six of seven" players averaging double figures doesn't seem crazy. That's what we learned during the run in the Bahamas.
In the blowout win over Team Toronto, Washington, who averaged 14.5 PPG and 7.5 RPG in the Bahamas, caught a pass 15 feet from the rim, turned to the basket, drove down the baseline and dunked over forward Tanner Graham. It was an exciting play. But that wasn't the most significant takeaway.
Team Toronto couldn't send help for Graham. Why? Travis was on the other block, so his man stayed. Herro was wide open for a 3-pointer, so the guards didn't move, either. This is the quandary every Kentucky opponent will face this season. How do you defend this team, and when do you help?
Keldon Johnson, who dazzled with an 18-for-25 effort in the team's last three games, is the perimeter star Kentucky lacked a year ago. The Duke freshmen (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson) have been the focus of the offseason. But Johnson, a 6-foot-6 wing ranked seventh in the 2018 class per ESPN.com, deserves a place in that conversation. Ashton Hagans could be a compelling contributor, too. Nick Richards is an explosive big man with an NBA future.
It was clear in the Bahamas that Washington and Johnson might lead this team in scoring. They won't have to carry the load alone, though. That could lead to a historic effort for the Wildcats.