The Kentucky Wildcats look more and more like a team which can do damage in March. Yet, before Big Blue fans get too confident, let’s step back and realize that while this team has been very successful in SEC play, locking up a regular season conference championship before the final week of competition, UK is not crushing opponents.
By Matt Zemek
This is not a huge flaw; it is merely a reality that has to be constantly kept in mind.
Kentucky is winning game after game because it is dominating the final five to seven minutes of regulation, not the first 33 to 35. Kentucky is playing a steady stream of close games. The Wildcats are winning virtually all of them, but the lesson is that even a slight to modest dip in focus can prove costly. This team doesn’t have a huge margin for error. The “will to win” John Calipari talks about must remain 100 percent strong; 93 percent could be enough to cause a defeat. With that in mind, let’s look at what Kentucky needs to do for its upcoming game against Tennessee, which will be Senior Night inside an emotional Rupp Arena:
1 – Ashton Hagans on the right track
Hagans was 2 of 13 from the field on Saturday against Auburn, but when he commits only one turnover and hands out five assists while being a pest on defense with three steals and many more plays which don’t show up in the box score, Kentucky becomes very hard to beat. Hagans, by improving his floor game, gives so much to UK. He doesn’t have to score if his floor game is solid. Getting into the habit of producing consistent floor games – and not focusing that much on scoring or shooting – is something Hagans needs to continue to build on as the SEC and NCAA Tournaments arrive.
2 – Team rebounding
Seeing Immanuel Quickley grab 12 boards against Auburn had to make Calipari’s heart sing. When scorers invest in rebounding and defense, it becomes clear that a team has completely bought into a coach’s desire for total effort and two-way energy at both ends of the court. A team-wide commitment to protecting the backboard, which was evident against Auburn, must continue to be a main component of how Kentucky plays down the stretch. This team doesn’t shoot great, which is precisely why rebounding is a central measure of how well the Wildcats perform.
3 – Balance
Kentucky is getting more – and better – contributions from more sources as the season moves along. This kind of balance (and depth) will serve UK well in postseason play. Big Blue needs the whole crew to power this ship. It won’t be one or two guys. Quickley and Nick Richards will need plenty of help.