By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The UK basketball season is winding down. As we approach the end of February there are only five regular season games left. As most of you know, Kentucky’s overall record sits at 22-4 and 11-2 in the SEC. Both those records are good enough to put UK in the driver’s seat to get at least a two-seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament barring a total collapse over those last five games.
Being awarded a two-seed would put UK in a great position to advance to at least the Regional Final in any bracket in the tournament. From there it will depend on how the team is performing and the type draw it receives as to whether they can move beyond that Regional Final to the Final Four.
I thought It would be interesting to look at a few things to be excited about heading into this year’s college basketball tournament season. In fact, three things that all Kentucky fans should be excited about and a few more that add icing to the cake. I’ll also discuss three things that make me less than excited about the Wildcat’s prospects of moving beyond that NCAA Regional Final in the next article. Here goes.
This Kentucky team has been surprisingly resilient in its ability to weather storms during games, to build leads through excellent defense and then overcome their opponent’s hitting a flurry of threes or getting a couple of runout baskets that swing the momentum the other direction. They seem to be able to make a play here or there during another team’s run that stops the bleeding and allows them to right the ship before they lose the lead. That is something to be excited about with a young team. Too many times in pressure situations in past seasons UK was not able to stand up against adversity and they lost a game they should have won. The game versus Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament last year is a prime example.
Another area of excitement with this team is their ability to dominate the paint with low post players that can score inside, punish their opponents on the offensive and defensive boards and block enough shots to keep most teams honest in their play in the paint area. UK has consistently been able to draw fouls on the opposing team’s big men with their physical play in the post and this needs to continue for this team to be successful in post season play.
The last area that should raise Cat Fans expectations is the emergence of some of the players off the bench and their ability to come in and give the starters some rest while they provide quality minutes. The increased roles of Immanuel Quickley at the point – both offensively and defensively – and the continued elevated play from EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards in the post has allowed Coach Calipari to steal a few more minutes of rest for the starters as the season winds down and should be a great weapon to use in post season when games are played in a Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday format. Playing less minutes near the end of the season could be the difference between fresh legs and dead ones on those Saturday or Sunday matchups.
Now for the icing on the cake. Like most John Calipari coached teams this particular group of players have grown their individual skills significantly over the course of the season. Players like PJ Washington and Tyler Herro don’t even resemble the type of player we saw in the Duke debacle at the beginning of the season — or even the first SEC loss to Alabama on the road to start conference play. That is a testament to the coaching ability of John Calipari and his staff. They always do an excellent job of motivating guys to improve their individual skills and it always pays dividends to the players on NBA Draft Day.
But the exciting thing about this team is that they have also elevated their team play. Their team defense is as good as any team Calipari has had at UK considering they don’t have a dominant shot blocking post player to help eliminate defensive mistakes. What they do have is group of guys that play the perimeter tight, work together and communicate on defensive switches and use their length and width down low to play good position defense.
Their team offense is improving and with the emergence of additional scoring threats like Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson, to go along with Washington and Travis down low, they should be able to consistently score enough points to beat most teams they will face prior to the Final Four.
All of that can go along way to making a team successful in post season play. But the other thing to like about this team is their mental toughness. They can take a punch and punch back – figuratively speaking. They don’t generally back down from physical play. A record of 6-1 on the road in the SEC and a road win against a ranked U of L team and a neutral site win against a ranked North Carolina Tarheel team indicate their toughness and ability to play well on the road and at neutral sites as the season has progressed.
All in all this team has a lot of promise as a potential Final Four team and might even be able to advance beyond that if they can overcome a few of the negative points I will discuss in the next article.