Can Kentucky Go The Distance

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

CAN KENTUCKY GO THE DISTANCE?

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The Kentucky Wildcats spent a week in the #1 spot in the rankings. We always warn you about teams relaxing right after they climb a mountain! Kentucky did just that, falling to South Carolina last week. This was a game clients of our TV Club cashed in, as the super Gamecock guard, Devan Downey, made himself known to people other than SEC insiders and Hurley handicappers, in lighting up the Wildcats for 30 points. From Kentucky's perspective, the loss came after they had climbed what seemed to be a mountain. Consider...

*Kentucky had fallen on very hard times in recent seasons.

*Kentucky's new coach John Calipari was seen as a guy who would 'eventually' get the Wildcats back to national prominence...not a coach who would do that IMMEDIATELY!

*Kentucky had a lot of new talent coming in, and the media always assumes it takes a lot time for youngsters to learn how to play together.

*The mainstream media LOVES hyping the big time programs to such extremes, that it just seems impossible for mortal men to get there! Even if Kentucky improved this year, they wouldn't be able to catch inexplicable media darling Tennessee in the SEC...and certainly not the powerhouses like Duke or North Carolina in the ACC, a slew of challengers in the Big East, or the up-and-coming Big Ten bulldogs.

College hoops superpowers were too good...Kentucky was coming from too far off the pace to make a difference THIS year...and they would be trying to succeed with new faces who barely knew each other.

Then...John Wall announced himself as the next big thing in college basketball. That's not always a sure thing in terms of championship potential though. OJ Mayo's USC Trojans barely made a mark in March Madness. What did Beasley win at Kansas State? A lot of 'one-and-done' guys are biding their time until the big time. Would Wall be a winner? Or, just a guy who sold tickets? His knack for leadership and unselfish play marked him as a WINNER.

And...everyone remember that John Calipari knows what he's doing! Give him racehorses and he'll run rings around you. Kentucky's a state known for racehorses, and they certainly had a nice collection of athletes in this year's group. Led by Wall on the floor, under the tutelage of one of the most dominant coaches of the modern era, Kentucky regained its past glory quickly.

Entering tonight's nationally televised game with Ole Miss (ranked 25th in the AP, and sitting just outside the rankings at 26th in the ESPN/USA Today poll), #3 Kentucky (#4 in the AP) realizes it's in position to make a very strong run at a #1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

*If the season ended today, THEY'D HAVE A TOP SEED!

*Kentucky is 20-1 on the year, giving them some margin for error even if they lose a few more times. There are teams in the top 10 now that have four losses.

*The remaining schedule is certainly manageable. The SEC just isn't a power conference any more with a lot of depth. Kentucky only has conference games left...on the regular season card and in the postseason tournament.

*Other respected programs continue to fall by the wayside. Former #1 Texas has lost a few games. Amazingly, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Louisville aren't even in the top 25 right now. Kentucky is running out of teams they'd 'lose a tie-breaker to' in the seeding process. The media and the selection committee are prone to give too much respect to big name teams. But, if those teams have taken themselves off the radar, who's going to keep Kentucky from earning a top seed?

Here are the biggest challenges left for Kentucky:

*Tonight: vs. Ole Miss
*2/13: vs. Tennessee (who's been stumbling lately)
*2/16: at Mississippi State (very tough spot on the schedule)
*2/20: at Vanderbilt
*2/27 at Tennessee

Hey, anything can happen in league play. South Carolina was supposed to be in trouble against Kentucky, but they caught a flat visitor in the right spot. Kentucky can enter any game flat and get surprised again. In terms of power rankings we respect, those five games listed are the toughest tasks.

Can Kentucky run the table? Hey, if they go 5-0 in those games we'll be endorsing them heartily come March. That three-game-in-eight day sequence against Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Vandy will be a killer. You have to assume they'll be flat for one of those spots. With a 20-1 record right now, they can afford to drop one of those games, and maybe even TWO and still get strong consideration for a #1 seed.

John Calipari knows what to do with a #1 seed. You get the feeling John Wall won't be particularly intimidated by the spotlight either.

We're guessing many of you will be watching Kentucky on TV tonight. If you've only been half-paying attention to college hoops, here's what you need to know about the Wildcats:

*These guys play defense! We're always emphasizing the importance of two-point defense to you. Champions guard the basket with abandon inside the paint. Kentucky has held opponents to just 40% shooting this year inside the arc, ranking 6th in the nation. ESPN will tell you all about Wall...and will do the sideline interviews with Calipari. Be sure YOU know that DEFENSE is leading this team to greatness.

*Kentucky has a balanced offense that ranks top 20 in two-point shooting percentage, and top 40 in three-point shooting. It's tough to do well at both! Perimeter teams often struggle inside where they're outmanned physically. Physical teams have trouble draining treys. Kentucky's balance enables them to get points on the board vs. anybody. Combine THAT with a great defense, and you've got something special.

*Kentucky is second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. They shoot great to begin with. When they miss, they get the ball back to extend the possession.

The only weaknesses of concern are as follows:

*Kentucky has a disturbing tendency to play to their level of opponent for awhile before turning on the jets. They learned a lesson about that in the loss at South Carolina. You can't wait too long to go the extra gear in challenging spots...and you can't always assume that gear is going to be there when you need it. This could set them up for an upset or two along the way...and does make them vulnerable in a 1-8 game in the second round of the Dance.

*Kentucky's strength of schedule isn't as strong as it first seemed. Pre-conference victories over North Carolina, Connecticut, and Louisville have certainly lost their luster. Heck, beating North Carolina by just two at home now looks bad! A few weeks ago, Kentucky had the resume of a champion. You have a gaudy record with wins over teams line NC/UCONN/Louisville, and you've arrived. Maybe they haven't arrived yet. Maybe Kentucky's excellent stat rankings are an illusion created by an easy schedule. That's something we'll be paying very close attention to in their challenge games.

 

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17
Nov

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