The Kentucky Wildcats had a lot of glaring weaknesses three weeks ago when they celebrated Christmas Day. The Wildcats had a lost week in Las Vegas just before Christmas, losing to both Utah and Ohio State. It was hard for this team to score. It was hard for this team to shoot.
By Matt Zemek
Kentucky has come a long way in a relatively short time. The Wildcats hit 9 of 15 3-point shots in a 76-67 win over Alabama this past Saturday. Kentucky is unbeaten in SEC play and offers every indication that it is rounding into shape. As has been the case several times before under John Calipari, a win over Louisville in late December provided the reset for the season the Wildcats needed. After beating Louisville, a new and better team has emerged. Let’s see what this team needs to focus on as it visits South Carolina.
1 – Perimeter defense
Alabama had been averaging 84.4 points per game entering its visit to Rupp Arena to play Kentucky this past Saturday. Big Blue held Bama to 67 points, a stellar defensive effort from the Cats. Kentucky limited Alabama to 4 of 21 3-point shooting. The Wildcats hounded the Crimson Tide on the perimeter and never let them feel comfortable as long-distance shooters.
South Carolina is not a very talented team. The Gamecocks just lost to a Tennessee team which is without senior point guard Lamonte Turner (and therefore isn’t especially strong). South Carolina could not score with any consistency against the Vols. It seems that Kentucky will have a hard time losing this game, but one of the basic ways it could potentially lose is if it simply doesn’t close out shooters or play with a necessary amount of intensity. If UK displays anything reasonably close to what it showed against Alabama, this game should be a comfortable win for the Wildcats.
2 – More, please
The Wildcats’ improved 3-point shooting, especially from Immanuel Quickley (5 of 6 on threes versus Alabama), will make them very hard to beat. If the Wildcats get more of that, they will be in great shape. Also on the “more” list, UK can continue to use more balanced scoring. Quickley was helped by E.J. Montgomery, Nate Sestina, Ashton Hagans, and Nick Richards against Alabama. They all hit important baskets and created an offense in which Alabama could not focus on one man. Kentucky needs to get more of those blended offensive performances, starting with this game against South Carolina.
3 – Nick Richards holding down the fort
Richards has seven double-doubles this season. He has been a rebounding machine, and his rebounding prowess was a central reason UK defeated Louisville. If Richards continues to pound the glass and thwart opponents near the rim, it’s hard to see how South Carolina can find the solutions it needs to upset Big Blue.