It’s John Calipari’s favorite time of year. Or maybe it just used to be his favorite. No. 6 seed Kentucky heads into its first-round matchup Friday against Providence as one of the NCAA Tournament’s big wild cards. The ‘Cats could lose by 10 to the Friars or make a deep NCAA Tournament in a relatively friendly bracket.

But here’s the thing: Kentucky won’t be going anywhere except back home to Lexington if they don’t take care of a few key areas, namely …

1. Protect the rim

Vanderbilt blasted Kentucky in the SEC Tournament not so much because of 3-point shooting, although Vandy’s 10-for-25 long-range day didn’t hurt. The rest of Vandy’s points came at the rim. Ezra Manjon looked like Derrick Rose, slashing to the basket for bucket after bucket. Part of Kentucky’s issue was a fear of foul trouble. Part was Oscar Tshiebwe getting sealed out of plays by Quentin Millora-Brown. But some is that this UK team just doesn’t protect the rim. Big Oscar is the only Wildcat with more than 16 blocks on the season. Kentucky averages just 3.8 blocks per game — tied for 102nd nationally, 1 spot behind … Marist and behind programs like Yale and Harvard.

Whether the cure is more minutes for rail-thin 6-9 Daimion Collins or untested 6-11 Ugonna Onyenso is hard to say. Maybe Tshiebwe just has to throw caution to the wind and get physical. But a tough Providence team will challenge the Wildcats at the rim, and a repeat of the Vandy game will lead to a repeat of the same outcome.

2. Get something from the bench

Kentucky’s injury issues have been myriad and confusing. They stumble into NCAA Tournament allegedly somewhat healthy … which is good, because the bench has to provide some sort of spark. In the SEC Tournament against Vandy, Cason Wallace was badly hobbled and Chris Livingston was ineffective. But UK’s bench provided 17 minutes, 0 points (on 0-for-1 shooting), 2 turnovers and 4 fouls. Kentucky will lean heavily on its starting 5, but even a few quality minutes off the bench will be pivotal in the NCAA Tournament.

Can Sahvir Wheeler return? Can he give UK quality minutes? Will CJ Fredrick not look like the basketball could be a hand grenade? Are Collins or Onyenso (both of whom Calipari has publicly admitted he should have played more) capable of helping? Some depth has to surface for UK to have a shot.

3. Shoot the 3 well (and not just often)

Calipari’s offense has taken a fair share of criticism this season. Kentucky plays something of a dinosaur’s game on offense, relying heavily on long 2-point jump shots, while not shooting a ton of 3s. They only attempt 18 3-pointers per game — 300+ Division I teams shoot more. But a deeper look reveals the Cats’ predicament. UK is 7-0 when it makes 9 or more 3s in a game. So clearly the answer is just to shoot more long-range shots. Right?


When UK takes 20 or more 3s in a game, they are 7-7. The Wildcats took 25 3-pointers in the SEC Tournament against Vandy. But they old made 6.

The biggest indicator of success for UK is 3-point percentage. Kentucky is 3-8 when it shoots 30% or worse. On the other hand, when the Wildcats top 35% from long range, they are 13-0.

Overall, UK connects on 35.4% of its 3-point attempts, which is 112th in Division I. By the same token, UK ranked last in the SEC in 3-point attempts in conference games (just 16.3 per game), but 4th in percentage (33.8%).

Individual numbers back up the trend. Lead bomber Antonio Reeves made 47% of his 3-point attempts in UK wins, but just 29% in losses. The same trend holds for 2ns-leading outside shooter Cason Wallace (40% 3-point shooting in wins, 27% in losses) and reserve CJ Fredrick (38% in wins, 18% in losses).

So Kentucky has to hit 3s, but the Wildcats need to be selective about taking them.

Good shooting production from Reeves and Wallace is probably the biggest indicator about UK’s 2023 NCAA Tournament experience.