By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Since the NCAA Tournament is quickly approaching and most Kentucky fans are celebrating a potential number one-seed and excited about UK’s prospects of adding banner number nine to the Rupp Arena rafters, I thought I would jump right in and throw a little cold water on the party. As previously promised here are my thoughts on three areas that UK fans should be at least some what concerned about going into the NCAA Tournament in March. So before anyone gets a chance to hurl something my direction I’m going to jump right in.
The first area of concern that I see for this team — and actually for virtually every one of John Calipari’s teams during his ten years at UK — is consistent outside shooting. I know, I know. Before you say, “This guy is crazy”, and quit reading hear me out. I realize that this team has been on fire the last couple of weeks, especially in impressive wins over Tennessee and Auburn. I can hear someone saying, “UK just shot 55 percent from the field against Auburn and made 46 percent of their three-point attempts. How can shooting be a concern?” I also realize that Tyler Herro only missed one shot against Arkansas on his way to a 29 point game. I admit that is incredible shooting for anyone in college basketball.
But here is why overall team shooting is a concern for me.
This team has lost four games this year. In all four of those losses the Wildcats shot relatively poorly and they consistently made less than 30 percent of their three-point shots. In fact, in three of the games UK shot less than 26 percent, which ended up being the determining factor in all three of the close losses. Had they shot their normal 36 percent from three-point range all three games would have been double digit wins.
That’s where the consistency part comes in. In my opinion this group needs to have six consistent shooting games against either the most talented or hottest teams in all of college basketball to win title number nine.
Can they do it?
So far they have won 13 games in the SEC and had a 10- game win streak during the SEC season (including the Kansas game) but during that win streak they shot below 45 percent overall and below 30 percent on their three-point shots a total of three times. Although they won all three of those poor shooting games they might not have done so against better competition. The SEC ten game (plus Kansas) win streak included several very mediocre teams – like Vanderbilt and Georgia – that they will not see in the Tournament. Only time will tell if they can string together six good shooting games in a row (so far they have not). If they can close out the regular season undefeated I will feel a lot more comfortable about their ability to continue to beat quality teams while being inconsistent in shooting the outside shot but until then it is a concern for me.
The second area of concern is that these Wildcats tend to play to the level of their competition and relax when they build a big lead. Both those tendencies can be deadly in a single elimination tournament setting. Teams that make the NCAA Tournament as winners of their league or high seeds don’t get there by chance. They are usually talented, confident, resilient and will continue to fight until the final horn. If UK plays lackadaisically to start the game or builds a lead and lets up off the gas they could find themselves in a situation like the LSU loss where a team makes enough plays to steal a victory at the end.
Finally the last concerning area for me is how will the team perform if one of their “do-everything” stars PJ Washington and Tyler Herro were to get into foul trouble, develop leg cramps or tweak an ankle. Any of those scenarios would limit their minutes and require UK to come up with other consistent scoring options against quality competition. It would also limit their ability to play good post and perimeter defense against teams that might be as talented as the Wildcats. The result of losing Washington or Herro in that type scenario could be similar to what happened to UK in losing Keith Bogans to an ankle injury in the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
I realize in some of these scenarios there are some big “what ifs” but at the same time these type situations have been realities for other teams. Duke is struggling right now – losing 2 of their last 3 games – because of an injury to their best player. Dike had plenty of other great players to turn to but because they have depended so heavily on Zion Williamson to carry them in each game the other players have not had to step up and take that leadership role. So far that lack of chemistry without Zion has cost Duke a couple of wins in the ACC. It could be more costly if it occurs again in the NCAA Tournament.
This current group of Wildcats have a lot going for them. They have talent, size, play great team defense when they are all on the same page and have a burning desire to win. They can take a punch and punch back. Those are all necessary qualities in a winning team.
Leadership guru John Maxwell said, “Highly competent people perform with great consistency. They give their best all the time, and that’s important.” And that’s exactly what I am taking about. To win the National Championship a team has to play at a high level, consistently for six games in a row. So far John Calipari’s Kentucky teams have only been able to do that once in ten years.
This team has the capability to do it, let’s just hope they can keep the willingness and desire to do it over the course of the next few weeks.