Do Cal's Cats have a 2021 magic act?
In the most miserable season in recent memory (and honestly, perhaps in the entire history of Kentucky basketball), the question still lingers. After beating Auburn, can 6-13 Kentucky manage to somehow salvage the season with a postseason run?
John Calipari has done things like this before. In 2011, Kentucky once was 7-6 in SEC play but rallied to a spot in the Final Four. Similarly, in 2014, Calipari took an unranked team from 10 pre-NCAA losses to the NCAA title game. In 2018, Kentucky lost 4 straight SEC games in February but rallied to reach the NCAA Sweet 16.
So, we’re saying there’s a chance?
Well, maybe. The blueprint of those seasons is pretty uniform. In 2011, Calipari had to develop freshman guard Brandon Knight into the go-to player who won two NCAA Tournament games with last-second shots. He elevated senior big man Josh Harrellson from end-of-the-bench scrub to the guy who played even with Ohio State standout Jared Sullinger. In 2014, it was the “tweak” that turned the Harrison twins into end-of-game stars instead of scared freshmen. In 2018, it was the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
But on the other hand, none of those teams were 6-13.
Let’s start with the obvious: Kentucky has to win the SEC Tournament in order to make any March noise.
Even if UK ran the pre-Tournament table, there are only 5 more games on the schedule, plus a potential make-up game. No, 12-13 isn’t going to impress anybody, including the most die-hard of Kentucky optimists. UK is positioning itself for the SEC Tournament, which Calipari infamously can’t stand. He has to win it or face the most disappointing campaign since the season that saw Eddie Sutton leave Lexington after a 13-19 campaign (and forthcoming NCAA probation).
The good news is that there are positive signs for this team. Touted freshman Brandon Boston might finally be putting it together. The 5-star Boston had been a zero-star 3-point shooter. But after going 11-for-55 on the season, he’s knocked down 9-of-13 trey attempts in his last 2 games. He scored 17 points in each of the last two games, a good sign, and doing it on just 10 and 12 shots is even better news.
Frosh forward Isaiah Jackson is coming off his first double-figure scoring game in a month, and his 18 points and 11 rebounds against Auburn were accompanied by only a single foul– the first time in a month the foul-prone big man hasn’t had more.
Sophomore Keion Brooks has been a steady presence, and seniors Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz seem to be growing more comfortable and confident.
The SEC Tournament is the wildcard. First, whether it will even be played is genuinely in doubt. But assuming that the potential TV dollars win out and the event does happen, it’ll be hard to gauge the mindset of teams like Alabama or Missouri, which might be looking ahead to the NCAA bracket. Could Kentucky make an unlikely run?
After Saturday’s win, Big Blue Nation is hanging on to that slender possibility. It’s far from likely, but for a Kentucky team that’s had its back against the wall since before Christmas, the chance of a fresh beginning might be good enough for now.