In the history of the SEC Tournament, the all-time score is UK 31, everybody else 28. How can Kentucky increase that lead? Well, they’ve got some work to do. Here are five potential keys to winning their 5th consecutive crown and 32nd overall.
1. Reintegrate Reid Travis into the rotation
Kentucky’s wily old veteran, Travis has been out with injury since Feb. 19. Kentucky has managed a 4-1 mark in his absence, but for UK to have the firepower to withstand UT and/or LSU, Travis has to be at least a minimal factor. Fill-ins E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are prone to fouling and lack Travis’ consistent post presence and rebounding ability. Travis probably isn’t at full strength, but if he can’t give UK 15-20 minutes, the Wildcats probably can’t outlast UT in the semifinals (at best).
2. Create some defensive havoc
Look at the tapes if needed, because the video doesn’t lie. When Kentucky stands around and hopes the other team misses shots, things don’t go really well for the Wildcats. Kentucky is just 2-3 in games it forces fewer that 8 turnovers. Disconcertingly, only twice since the beginning of February has UK forced 10 or more turnovers. Admittedly, Travis’ injury has impacted Kentucky here, since foul trouble to their remaining big men has hampered their defensive aggressiveness. Still, you have to defend to win the league.
3. Guard the 3
Similarly, looking back at Duke’s embarrassing beatdown of UK to open the season, one glaring problem is that the Wildcats didn’t defend the 3-point shot. They’re allowing almost 8 made 3s per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the country.
When opponents make 10 3s against Kentucky, the Wildcats are just 4-3 on the season. Early losses to Duke, Seton Hall, and Alabama were fraught with open shooters firing away at will. Kentucky’s simply not punchy enough on offense to give up points in bunches on the other end of the floor. Jordan Bone in particular has drilled Kentucky from 3-point range in both meetings with UT.
4. Get consistent play from P.J. Washington
Washington was Kentucky’s only media pick for All-SEC status. When Kentucky’s offense goes through Washington, he creates the post touches and perimeter opportunities that Kentucky requires. A bonus has been his own 3-point shooting stroke, although that seems a little less reliable than his interior jump hook or feeds from double teams to open teammates.
Washington looked like an SEC Player of the Year candidate before Grant Williams ate his lunch in Knoxville. Kentucky has to make sure to involve Washington early and often, and he could stand to add a double-digit rebound game or two — which would be his first since Feb. 2.
5. Find offense off the bench
While Kentucky’s starters have showed signs of impressive development, the lack of consistent bench play could be fatal in the SEC Tournament.
Guard Immanuel Quickley has shot just 38% and averages under 5 points per game in SEC play. Even with increased minutes after Travis’ injury, Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery have averaged a combined 7 points per game in SEC play.
Guard Jemarl Baker averages fewer than 2 points per game and has shot 32% in league play. Somebody of that group has to step up and provide some scoring punch if Kentucky hopes to outlast the field again in Nashville.