Kentucky in 2020 looks a lot like Kentucky in 2019… which isn’t that bad

Tyrese Maxey of Kentucky
Tyrese Maxey

The 2020 Kentucky Wildcats probably aren’t going to get the No. 2 seed the 2019 team achieved in the NCAA Tournament, but they might get a No. 3 seed at the rate they are proceeding

By Matt Zemek

Far more importantly, these Wildcats – unlike the 2019 team – are headed for an SEC championship. Equally as important if not more, the 2020 Cats have the same hunger of the 2019 team. It is this team’s best virtue.

We saw this virtue on display the past week.

John Calipari calls it the “will to win,” and it’s a real thing. Let’s be clear about what that term means, though, because it is easy to toss around but can be misunderstood by a casual sports fan.

The “will to win” is obviously a reference to the intensity with which a team plays, but it’s not just about desire. The “will to win” refers to the ability to maintain poise in tough situations, to not crumble when the other team – such as the Florida Gators this past Saturday in Rupp Arena – goes on a 7-0 run to take a 40-33 lead in the second half.

The “will to win” refers to a team’s ability to not panic, to not get down on itself, to forget about the last bad play or missed shot and focus on the next play, the next defensive sequence. The “will to win” is about staying together, not coming apart, when times are tough. Resilience, resourcefulness, finding a way – that, combined with the intensity and the energy, truly manifests the “will to win” Calipari speaks about.

Yes, this Kentucky team is a flawed and incomplete team. Ashton Hagans still isn’t putting all the pieces together at the offensive end of the floor. Yes, E.J. Montgomery is not a finished product. Yes, this team’s 3-point shooting won’t be a reliable, every-game asset for Big Blue. We can all point out the deficits and weaknesses on this roster.

Yet, when the chips are down, this team regularly responds. It has played a lot of bad halves of basketball, but rarely a bad 40 minutes. Kentucky doesn’t land knockout punches, but in the final five to 10 minutes of games, it regularly outplays the opposition.

Kentucky CheerleaderWhile Auburn loses to Missouri and Georgia and LSU has faltered on defense, Kentucky contains the damage in its SEC games. Kentucky doesn’t let the bottom fall out. Kentucky wobbles on many occasions, but very rarely implodes, the South Carolina game being the one exception which proves the rule.

When Kentucky squeezed past Vanderbilt and Ole Miss the week before these past two games against LSU and Florida, it looked like the portrait of a team which was bored and waiting for the bigger “prove it” moments of the season to arrive. Kentucky’s wins over LSU and Florida contained the same “up and down” feel of the Vanderbilt and Ole Miss games – UK’s level of play veered all over the place this past week, much as it has fluctuated all season – but the Wildcats were facing FAR better competition than Vandy and Ole Miss.

The same game flow, the same uneven 40-minute journey, felt very different. If Vandy and Ole Miss were displays of boredom, these LSU and Florida wins were much more an illustration of a good team knowing how to take some punches and fight back. The alertness, the vigilance, the overall quality of play – especially on defense – rose to meet the moment.

Kentucky scratched and clawed its way to the Elite Eight last season. Kentucky’s wins over Wofford and Houston were bare-knuckle, knock-down, drag-out street fights. They weren’t pretty. Kentucky’s offense struggled in those games. Yet, the Cats won with relentless defense and effort plus the late-game poise needed to put all the pieces together.

This 2020 team showed against LSU and Florida that it is ready to accept that identity and carry it into the upcoming SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

Given where Kentucky stood a few weeks ago, that’s a reality Big Blue Nation should be able to accept without too much complaint.

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