Why Kentucky is down ... and why the Cats could still steal the SEC Tournament
LEXINGTON — With March Madness well underway, forgive Kentucky fans if things don’t feel quite right with the Big Blue Nation ahead of their Friday start to the SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
If you’d lost the count, the all-time SEC Tournament scoreboard looks like this: Kentucky 30, Everybody else (combined) 27.
So how does Kentucky, the three-time defending champ, find itself with a No. 4 seed, and with numbers guru Ken Pomeroy giving the Wildcats just a 13.2 percent chance of winning that 31st SEC Tournament title? And more important, what can the Wildcats do about it?
Same old, (maybe?) same old
Shortly after John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, he admitted that he wasn’t the biggest fan of the SEC Tournament. To say that his confession sparked a controversy in the land where Wildcat backers plan their annual vacation around the SEC’s annual March spectacle would be an understatement. In any case, Calipari got with the program — and has held his own as the Kentucky coach, winning the Tournament in five of his first eight seasons. What has been more surprising is that his Wildcats have often used the Tournament as a springboard to an unlikely NCAA Tournament run.
In 2011, Calipari’s Wildcats went 10-6 in the SEC, the third-best record in the league, but after a 22-8 regular season, vaulted past regular-season winner Florida in the SEC title game, on a March run that reached the Final Four.
Similarly, in 2014, Kentucky finished well behind Florida in a 12-6 SEC slate, but pushed the top-ranked Gators to the final seconds before losing a heart-breaking Championship fight. Fresh off their best week of the season, Kentucky surprised critics all the way to the NCAA Final.
Both of those late-charging Kentucky squads were packed with talented but inexperienced young players who came to life at the right time, aided by some excellent SEC Tournament showings. So 2018 should be more of the same, right? Well, maybe …
This time around
On the other hand, this season’s Kentucky team has struggled more than Calipari’s previous March overhauls. The last time Kentucky came in below this season’s 10-8 SEC campaign was an 8-8 season in 2009, when Billy Gillispie was still patrolling the sideline.
Kentucky was swept by both Tennessee and Florida this season. The last time that happened? Try 1967, when Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky and SEC basketball was still segregated.
Kentucky’s struggles have come as the team’s bevy of typical 5-star recruits have generated untypical results? Kevin Knox was co-SEC Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-SEC pick, but his explosive perimeter scoring tends to disappear against more physical defensive opposition. In those four losses to UT and UF, Knox scored 9.3 points per game — well under his usual 15.7 mark.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a second team All-SEC selection, and while the willowy guard is Kentucky’s most consistent player, it’s not yet clear that he has the elite talent to carry the Wildcats to victory.
Other players have frankly disappointed. Forward Jarred Vanderbilt fought injuries and missed half the season, and is still working to assert himself offensively. Guard Quade Green has frequently looked lost, especially on defense, where Calipari has had to toy with a zone to mask his team’s occasional bouts of contempt for aggressive man-to-man principles. Seven-foot center Nick Richards, who had 25 points in a game in November, has scored just 27 points total since January.
A recent four-game winning streak gave Kentucky hope, but the Wildcats dashed that by laying an egg at Florida to end the regular season.
To paraphrase a certain former Kentucky coach, Brandon Knight isn’t walking through the door. Julius Randle isn’t walking through the door. Kentucky has talent limitations that have rarely existed during Calipari’s near decade tenure in Lexington.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
That said, it is invariably too soon to write off this team. The 2011 and 2014 seasons provide a template, even if the players who fill the template aren’t quite the equals of their predecessors.
One point of comparison that bodes well for this group is that those teams were led by talented guards who had struggled, but provided definitive leadership down the stretch.
Even if Alexander isn’t Calipari’s most talented guard, he’s certainly good enough to be the straw that stirs an SEC championship drink. Green seems at his most comfortable playing alongside Alexander in the backcourt, and he has become an excellent de facto shooting guard. In Kentucky’s past five games, he’s 11-for-20 from 3-point territory. Continued marksmanship from Green would allow Alexander better driving lanes and keep defenses from collapsing on Knox.
As the guard play improves, Kentucky has figured out a way to combine Wenyen Gabriel and Vanderbilt into an unlikely inside presence to play opposite P.J. Washington. Vanderbilt essentially floats, lacking a defined offensive skill set, but grabbing a Dennis Rodman-like 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes (well ahead of the rest of the league as leading SEC rebounder Tyler Davis grabs 12.1 per 40 minutes played).
Gabriel, meanwhile, is a better offensive threat, and can manage everything from tip-ins to 3s (he’s shooting 34 percent from that range). Neither player is a prototypical center, but “Wenyen Vanderbilt” (or “Jarred Gabriel,” if you prefer) works out to 12 points, around 15 boards, and some monumental hustle plays per game.
Perhaps Kentucky’s X-factor is Hamidou Diallo, who chose to bypass becoming a none-and-done after practicing but not playing at Kentucky a year ago. In pre-conference play, Diallo was quite solid, scoring 15.2 points per game on 46 percent shooting. But in SEC play, Diallo looked lost, making under 35 percent of his shots and scoring only 7.0 points per game.
If Diallo returns to pre-conference form, and “Jarred Gabriel” can continue his weird two-headed dominance, then maybe Calipari has another March reappearing act up his sleeve for the Wildcats.
History suggests that it’s certainly possible.