Skal Labissiere was supposed to make it seem as though Karl-Anthony Towns never left Kentucky. He was the No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2015 and, with excellent size at 6-foot-11, 225 pounds to go with fine dunking abilities, it was expected that Kentucky would once again contend for a national title.
Granted, it is still early in the season and the No. 4 Wildcats are 7-1 on the year, but Labissiere has not exactly lived up to expectations. The true freshman is averaging 12 points and 2.1 blocks per game, while shooting 61 percent from the field. However, he has only posted 3.9 rebounds per contest.
For someone his size, that’s simply unacceptable and the fact that four players on the team are ahead of him in the rebounding department makes it even worse.
To add further insult to injury, each of those players are shorter than him and two of them are guards; not exactly a good look for a freshman center who was so highly touted out of high school.
And Labissiere’s rebounding woes hit a low point last week when Kentucky, then ranked No. 1, lost to unranked UCLA in Westwood.
Non-conference losses are bad enough, especially to unranked opponents, but Labissiere was a borderline non-factor in the game. In just 16 minutes, Labissiere scored six points and blocked two shots, but pulled down just one rebound while committing four fouls. His performance in the paint was so bad that teammate Tyler Ulis actually shoved him during the game at one point after Labissiere failed to get a key rebound.
Speaking to reporters after the game, including veteran Kentucky beat writer Jerry Tipton, coach John Calipari addressed Labssiere’s issues.
Cal on Skal getting tougher: “Gotta do it. Got no options (shaking head). Gotta get lower, gotta use leverage, can’t try to use your arms…
— Jerry Tipton (@JerryTipton) December 4, 2015
Coach Cal is absolutely right. Kentucky plays twice this week, against Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday and Arizona State on Saturday. Eastern Kentucky’s leading rebounder is 6-foot-7 senior guard Jarrelle Reischel and, though Labissiere won’t need to have an epic performance against this squad from the OVC, Arizona State is a horse of a different color.
That is because the Sun Devils are coached by former Duke great Bobby Hurley, who brought Buffalo to its first ever NCAA Tournament last year on the back of fast offense, tough on-ball defense and a rebounding game that ranked 16th in the nation.
Arizona State currently ranks 38th in that department with Kentucky ranked 77th, and the Sun Devils also have the athletic Savon Goodman leading the team with 8.3 boards per game.
Given how Kentucky just lost to another Pac-12 squad that was tougher than them around the rim, Labissiere simply has to play better.
That means jumping up to go after every loose ball, even if it puts him at risk of committing a foul. It means demanding the ball in the paint and actually working the low-post rather than just play face-up. It means not being afraid to get tossed around or stand and bang under the basket.
Most importantly, it means doing whatever it takes to bring home the win and not worrying about accumulating some bumps and bruises on the way.
That all being said, if Kentucky can handily beat both Eastern Kentucky and Arizona State while Labissiere improves overall, then it can be safe to put them back as favorites to win the tournament this year.
But if each game is close or if Kentucky loses one, and the lack of intensity in the rebounding game has anything to do with it, then the Wildcats are as good as exposed in 2015-16 unless major adjustments can be made, be it by benching Labissiere or making him work extra hard in practice.