The Kentucky Wildcats are losing grip of their stranglehold on the Southeastern Conference.
Fresh off a season where they swept SEC competition and ran through the March Madness gauntlet to win the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have started the season 9-4, already doubling their loss total from last year.
Kentucky now sports the eighth-best record in a strong grouping of schools that have yet to square off against each other. Formerly the gold standard, the Wildcats are now clawing to keep up with their SEC rivals.
Usually teams don't bounce back from losing four players to the first round of the NBA Draft. Even though Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist both punched their ticket to the NBA after standout freshman years, John Calipari brought in the next batch of blue-chip prospects to fill the void.
Freshman Nerlens Noel could follow Davis' path from Kentucky to No. 1 in the NBA Draft. The forward is shooting 55.7 percent with 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per contest.
Fellow newcomers Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress are also making cases to become lottery picks when they likely go pro this summer.
Nobody expected this team to carry over their predecessor's dominance, so the season's start has been far from a disaster. The Wildcats shoot an SEC-best 49.2 percent from the floor and lead the pack in assists and blocks.
So what's going wrong for the Wildcats this season?
Free-throw shooting has plagued the young squad early in the year. Kentucky shoots just 64.2 percent from the foul line, the conference's third-worst rate.
The club has also feasted on a home-heavy schedule while losing its only two road games.
Also, the rest of the conference is stepping up its game this year. The 9-2 Florida Gators, ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25, have surrendered 52.2 points per contest, paving the way for a 20.5-point differential per game.
Senior Laurence Bowers is setting the tone for the No. 12-ranked Missouri Tigers, who overpower opponents on the glass and average 79.5 points per night.
No other SEC school is ranked, but the 10-2 Mississippi Rebels could be on their way if Murphy Holloway continues to lead the way with a daily double-double.
For a group of freshmen to dominate college basketball, it takes a truly dynamic, remarkable bunch like last year's cast. Noel could be the closest thing left to Davis in the NCAA, but he's not yet close to replacing Davis, who rejected 4.7 shots per game in his single college season.
They also need a guy like Kidd-Gilchrist, who led the team like a wily veteran even though he was still a teenager.
Building a team entirely on one-and-done players making a pit stop is not a sustainable winning formula. Occasionally the top recruits will come together to produce something special, but there are going to be seasons like this one where the young players fight through growing pains.
Kentucky still boasts a very good squad, one that will make a run at an SEC title and could make for a dangerous opponent if they heat up in March.
But its not a juggernaut that can breeze through the schedule and overpower a deep SEC with several teams capable of bringing down the Wildcats.
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