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Is Kentucky a piece or two short of being a Final Four team?

Kentucky coach John Calipari will be depending on guards, from left, Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley to help UK make a Final Four run. (Vicky Graff Photo)

Kentucky is 10 games into the SEC schedule, has an 8-2 record and are in a three-way tie for first place. Beating the Tennessee Volunteers 77-64 in Knoxville on Saturday, combined with a two-game losing streak by the LSU Tigers, has opened the door for the Wildcats to claim yet another SEC regular season championship if they can take care of business over the next eight games.

So, since we are talking about taking care of business, let’s talk about how the Wildcats fared with the Volunteers on Saturday. A lot of Saturday’s game involved physical play down in the paint. The Tennessee game plan, much like Auburn and Mississippi State, was to knock Nick Richards around enough to hopefully get him in early foul trouble and keep him from getting into a scoring rhythm. That plan only partially worked. The Cats were still physical enough to outlast the Volunteers down low. Kentucky out rebounded Tennessee 33-29 and Nick Richards scored 15 points on 5-5 shooting and added 7 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. Keion Brooks Jr also helped do some of the dirty work underneath with 9 boards in 26 minutes of floor time. He also chipped in 4 points.

But what about the rest of the team? Well, Immanuel Quickley, as usual, was a guy that came up big the entire game. He scored 18 points in 5-9 overall shooting and was 2-3 on three-pointers. He also had 1 turnover during his 29 minutes in the game. Quickley continues to be Mr. Dependable, scoring late in the game through either drives to the basket, open looks from the three-point line and of course scoring at the free throw line. Johnny Juzang also came up big in a reserve role scoring 13 points on 4-4 shooting and was 3-3 from three-point range and 2-2 from the free throw line. A perfect shooting day in 24 minutes of action.

Now, I wish I could say some great things about Tyrese Maxey, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina, but unfortunately I can’t. Maxey played ok in his 31 minutes scoring 15 points on 6-13 shooting but was 0-3 on three-pointers. He also had 5 rebounds and only 2 turnovers in 31 minutes. Those are good numbers for most players but Tyrese Maxey is not “most players.” But more on that later.

Unfortunately Nate Sestina continued down the bad road he has gotten on. He had a zero stat line except for one rebound, four fouls and one turnover in 7 minutes. EJ Montgomery was much the same. He had 2 points and 3 rebounds in 15 minutes of action. And last but not least, point guard Ashton Hagans.

I realize that John Calipari loves Ashton Hagans as his point guard, and to that end I agree that he can be a disruptive force on defense, he is extremely athletic and can, at times, be a good rebounder. But unfortunately his play is very inconsistent. He can make exceptional plays look easy but he can also dribble the ball off his foot bringing it up the floor or drop it out of bounds without any defensive pressure.

When a team is trying to make a National Championship run they can’t afford to have a point guard that is, at best inconsistent, and at worst a non-scoring player that struggles in most half court offensive sets and can sometimes be a turnover machine. He has difficulty making the simple plays, doesn’t seem to always recognize when to push the tempo and when to hold up based on what the defense is doing and doesn’t always seem to understand the importance of the time and score of the game.

I will be the first to admit that at times he can be a dynamic player, creating havoc on defense and leading the break in transition but by this time in the season opposing coaches have figured out that if they can create a half court game, outmuscle Kentucky under the basket and constantly drive the ball on offense to score a layup, pick up hand check fouls or kick the ball out for an open three-point shot, they have an excellent shot at defeating the Wildcats on any given night.

The inconsistency of Kentucky’s guards, specifically Hagans and Maxey, are in my opinion what keeps UK from expanding leads beyond 5 to 8 points in games against opponents that quite honestly don’t match up from a talent level standpoint. Tennessee was one of those opponents.

If either Maxey or Hagans decide to step up and play consistently at the point guard position this University of Kentucky team could be a Final Four or better team. But if each player continues on the same path — Hagans making poor plays that lead to turnovers and Maxey taking ill-advised shots from way outside and trying to do too much offensively — it will be difficult for Kentucky to get beyond the Sweet Sixteen without a draw that is the perfect matchup for these players. And that has only happened once that I can remember in the last decade or so.

When the calendar says February and March is right around the corner college basketball teams that intend to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament should be rounding into form. Kentucky has improved from earlier in the season — they now know how to fight to win and a couple of key individuals have stepped up to lead the team — but if they cannot come up with a smart, tactical point guard that can recognize time and score in the game, get them into the correct sets that will take advantage of mismatches on the floor and efficiently score enough so that opponents have to play them honestly they will struggle when they reach The Tournament.

Basketball is a simple game in March. Find winning players that can consistently make winning plays. It’s not easy but it is simple. So far, UK is about a player or two short of that winning formula.

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  1. Not sure who wrote this, but IMO you worry to much. Hagans and Maxey will be fine, and so will Sestina. UK is tied for first in the SEC. I plan to just set back and watch what happens. This team could win it all. If they don’t, football is right around the corner. GO Cats!!!!

  2. It wasn’t me, but this is the weakest Calipari team at UK, even 2013 before Noel went down.

    I still hold to my view that this team’s ceiling is Sweet 16, and is probably a 2nd round exit.

    How many missing pieces does that equal? It is a team game.

  3. I thought they play better as team against Tenn. The scoring was well balance and another thing everything doesn’t has to be rosary tomake a deep run. This team has come a long way still got room to improved

  4. Weaker UK team now than 2013? I doubt it. I would take this team over the Nerlens Noel team any day. The SEC is also much a stronger league today than it was just a couple years ago. I think the days are over where UK dominates this league yearly as it did in the past. To many good coaches now, and the other SEC schools are getting their fair share of top talent. As for the ceiling for this team being the Sweet 16, we’ll see. I don’t ever count UK out of going all the way.

  5. What possible evidence is there to support an assertion that the SEC in 2020 is stronger than ever?

    Here is what I see.

    Over the last 5 years, the SEC has been the ranked as:

    2016 #6 0.1121 ppp average
    2017 #5 0.1291 ppp average
    2018 #4 0.1439 ppp average
    2019 #4 0.1464 ppp average

    That indicates a conference that is getting stronger across the board, and rising relative to other conferences.

    In 2020, the SEC is currently #6 with an average of 0.1069 ppp

    This SEC is the weakest it has been at least since 2016.

    Assertions are easy to make.

    Defending them can be a different story.

    So, what evidence do you have that the SEC in 2020 is the strongest it has ever been.

    1. Professor, there is a big problem with stats in sports when you compare 1 year to another:
      The teams are not the same, players get hurt and out for the season, other players should get better as the season goes along.
      Any way you slice it, you are not comparing apples to apples.
      Stats do deceive.

  6. Professor I’ll let you prove how sorry the SEC is today based on statistics. I don’t worry about numbers. I worry about wins and losses. Not sure that the players and coaches in the conference would agree with you either that the SEC is weak in 2020. The SEC as a whole has more talent, plays stronger defense, and has better coaching now than ever before IMO. UK has their hands full in 2020. Right now Auburn, and LSU are in their way to another SEC regular season championship. That has not happened much in UK’s basketball past. On another point, I don’t ever count the Cats out in the big dance like you have here. Why? Because when the Cats win it all it makes one look bad. Go Cats!!!

  7. Just for the record I wrote this and I still stand behind it. Hopefully the Cats will prove me wrong.

  8. This team just needs a couple of players to be more consistent, both on offense and defense.
    Hagans has got to get back to protecting the ball and looking for Richards more.
    Someone other than Quickley has got to be a consistent threat from outside.
    Having said that, I do see a little improvement in Sestina’s defense, but he has to quit reaching. Luckily, we don’t have to depend on him as much with the improvement of Brooks.
    There is nothing “missing” on this team that cannot be fixed.
    It’s just a matter of “IF” they can fix it in time.

  9. The number 1 efficient team has won 10 of the last 18 NCAA championships, and #2 or #3 have won 5 more. There are 3 outliers. The lowest ranked outlier was #15, and the other 2 were top 10.

    The consistency, year to year, is remarkably high.

    This year’s distribution of power from top to bottom is so similar to every other year over the last 10 years it is also remarkable

    There is no more parity this year than any prior year.

    There are no more upsets this year than any prior year.

    AND, UK is currently not in the top 25 most efficient teams, and not likely to finish in the top 25 this year. Despite this, UK is currently the most efficient team in the SEC. No other SEC team this year is in the top 30 efficient team.

    Wins and losses are important, but the SEC Strength, top to bottom is the lowest it has been in several years, so the SEC W-L record is deceiving relative to national strength.

  10. Very Interesting. Well armed with this knowledge Professor, just who are the most efficient teams in the land these days? Like who is #1, #2, #3, even #15 right now? Are you picking one of them to win the national championship later this year? Is Baylor the most efficient? I would think so as the No. 1 ranked team. Is Gonzaga? Is Louisville in the top 10 of most efficient teams, Is Michigan State? If so, UK has already beaten those guys once already. If efficiency is the key to winning a national championship, and UK is way down the list at No. 25, then under this reasoning UK had just better fold it up and surrender, I guess. And if UK is the most efficient team in a weak SEC, as you say, then LSU, Auburn, and maybe even Florida, should do likewise. Thank goodness for the games yet to be played, the players and coaches who will participate, the officials who will make some mad and some glad, and the all important score keepers. That gives me hope. Just maybe one of the “outliers” maybe like the 25th most efficient team in the land will rise up and show them all who is king of the mountain for the 9th time. I sure hope so.

    1. Well if I’m reading current NET rankings right, UK sets at 21 this morning. That puts us in the top 25. Hope just got better. You experts, am I reading that right?

  11. I don’t disagree that efficient teams win titles; you have to be.
    Having said that, where a team is now and where they end up can be a big difference. Like the year UConn got on a run and took the title.
    Many things can impact efficiency; like I said earlier, someone getting hurt, someone really improving.
    I would like to know, for teams that won the title, where was their efficiency half way through the conference and where did they end up?
    What kind of jumps in efficiency can take place?
    We all know efficiency is extremely important, but every coach will tell you that getting some lucky breaks here and there in the tournament are very important also, and a teams efficiency has a lot to do with defenses you face through the season. Teams that play against tough defenses should do much better in the tournament.

  12. Prof let me start by saying I truly appreciate the numbers and the effort that you expend to create them. But if any of the fans of the 64 other teams that are not in the top 4 in the metrics felt like you seem to feel there would be no reason to go to NCAA games. Save your money and stay home people because the numbers say you are foolish to waste your time and hard earned dollars. Don’t waste your time supporting your team because they are sweet 16 at best.

    Do you ever just watch the game and root for your Cats without the numbers?

    Most of us are just plain fans. We drive to New York at the last minute even though the odd say we will get beat by UNC and watch a team the numbers say could not make it reach the final four. That’s what true fans do. I love the numbers but could care less about them because in the end I am a FANATIC FOR UK. I believe that we will win it all every year. I have never in my entire life filled out a bracket that did not have UK winning it all. In the years we did not make the NCAA I refused to fill out a bracket.

    Sometimes it feels like you are talking down to those of us who just follow the Cats and love them no matter the numbers IMHO. That love not stats is why we are the best fan base in the world. But I could be wrong and if you ask my wife of 37 years she would say that is very often.

    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK GO BLUE OR STAY HOME

  13. This team is still coming together. Those missing pieces could very well be EJ’s rebounding and defense along with some help from Keion and 3 point shooting from Nate and Johnny. If these 4 pieces come together with this team, we will be a hard out.

  1. […] Is Kentucky a piece or two short of being a Final Four … Kentucky is 10 games into the SEC schedule, has an 8-2 record and are in a three-way tie for first place. Beating the Tennessee Volunteers 77-64 in Knoxville on Saturday, combined with a two-game losing streak by the LSU Tigers, has opened the door for the Wildcats to claim yet another SEC regular season championship if they can take care of business over the next eight games. […]

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