Coming into this season, all the talk surrounding the Kentucky Wildcats was of perfection. That talk will still continue in Saturday, but the perfection focused will be on the Florida Gators who are 17-0 in the SEC and winners of their last 22 games. The Gators are the “anti-Wildcats” this year as they start four seniors and have weathered the rigors of a road SEC schedule. And it is kind of fitting that Florida is the number one team in the land while Kentucky is at the opposite end of the AP poll … at #25. It’s ridiculous to expect these Wildcats to be perfect anymore, but a return to being merely average may be the key to a strong end to the season.
To be honest, Kentucky probably played their best game of the season in Rupp arena against the Gators. After twenty-nine minutes, Kentucky was on the verge of putting the Gators away. They had a 45-38 lead and Rupp was going insane. And then something broke for Kentucky. The Gators dominated the rest of the way and scored on their last thirteen possessions en route to a 69-59 victory. Florida finished the game on a 31-14 tear, and well, Kentucky has not been the same since then.
Kentucky played their best game versus Ole Miss, but even that game they lacked the killer instinct. In the five games since Florida, UK has gone from a decent shooting team into “the gang that can’t shoot straight”. The Wildcats are shooting 37.3% from the field and 26.1% from three-point range. If you throw out the Ole Miss game, that drops to 34.3% and 23.1% from long-range.
This team was especially horrible in the two losses, going 34.2% against Arkansas and 26.9% versus South Carolina. Simply put, the half court offense is a mess and we are seeing too many players that are trying to do too much as they just drive the ball into traffic to try to make something happen or take ill-advised three-point shots early in the shot clock without even setting up the offense. If this team shot even a very average 40% in the two losses, that would have meant an extra 8 points versus Arkansas and an extra 14 points versus South Carolina and that is assuming these were all two point shots. And 40% is a very conservative average. Even with the recent shooting woes, Kentucky hits 45.2% on the year overall. If Kentucky can shoot that 45% average Saturday, things can be interesting.
Of course the bulk of that percentage was when this team looked to feed Randle inside and Kentucky’s bigs hit their close shots. You aren’t going to shoot like that when you are launching bricks from long-range five seconds into the shot clock.
And that’s the rub. This team has never been a good three-point shooting team and too many horrible shots are taken. This team needs to get back to their roots and start scoring again from the paint out. Of course, facing a zone is going to impact the amount of good looks under the basket, but Kentucky’s guards should be able to take better shots than they are taking.
It is a bit surprising to note that UK’s free throw percentage has actually improved since Florida, shooting 75.9% over the last five games. That is going to win you some games in March. And despite their warts, this is still a team no one will want to face in the NCAA Tournament. They have not been blown out by anyone and find themselves in the game heading into crunch time. And this is a team that is battle tested in the crunch and have started to be effective at the line.
All the ingredients are there for a deep March run, but John Calipari has not been able to figure out the correct recipe yet. I know that most of the BBN have given up on this team, but I have not yet. It’s too hard to forget the 2011 team that had a similar 22-8 record and made the Final Four. True, that was a different team, but this team still has too much talent to be playing this badly. And even while playing their worst ball of the year, they have gone 3-2. A takes a good team to win when being this bad.
It’s time to turn the page. There is no SEC regular season title. There is not a number one seed. And there is no longer any perfection expected from this team. Maybe instead of playing up to the expectations of perceptions, the Wildcats need to embrace this underdog role and start playing better than average ball and see what can happen.