March Madness: Kentucky's survival guide to the SEC Tournament
A 25-6 Kentucky squad enters the SEC Tournament pretty satisfied with the season to date. Sure, the Wildcats wish they had finished the regular season on top of the league, but a game behind champion Auburn hasn’t exactly been bleak. The Wildcats seem to be solidly holding down a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and likely even winning the SEC Tournament title wouldn’t change that. But still, with the last vestiges of the brutal 2020-21 season being driven away, here’s what Kentucky needs to do to win the SEC Tournament this week in Tampa.
1. Stay healthy
It hasn’t exactly been a secret, but Kentucky’s struggles have tended to coincide with struggles staying healthy. Backcourt starters TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler have each struggled with multiple injuries this season. Kentucky lost leads to LSU and Auburn when both had to leave those games. Moreover, Kentucky has only 7 players who have averaged 8 minutes of playing time this season. The Wildcats are good, but they aren’t particularly deep, and they need to stay healthy for the rest of the season.
2. Guard the 3
Kentucky’s path to the SEC Tournament championship likely goes through Alabama, which had the most 3s in the SEC this year (289), and Tennessee, which finished 2nd to UK in 3-point percentage (35.3%). Kentucky can’t get complacent about 3-point defense, which could be bad news for a UK team that allowed opponents to shoot 47, 35, 35, 28, and 39% from 3-point land in their 5 SEC games before Florida. The good news was that Florida was just 3-for-20 (15%) against UK, so the ‘Cats come in off a good peformance.
3. Get TyTy rolling
Kentucky’s success, win or lose, doesn’t seem to tie to any one player more clearly than it does to TyTy Washington. Florida was an outlier, but in Kentucky’s wins, Washington shoots right at 50% overall and 36% from 3-point range, scoring 13.8 points per game. In Kentucky’s losses, Washington shoots 29% and 23% from 3, averaging 6.3 points per game. Granted, injuries (as discussed above) have been part of the problem. But when he is creating in transition or hitting mid-range to 3-point shots, Washington’s ability to create points is key to UK’s success in Tampa and beyond.
4. Keep the veteran shooters going
To be frank, the main reason Kentucky’s season wasn’t gutted entirely during a recent span when both Washington and Wheeler were out with injuries was the steady emergence of veteran wing scorers Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz. The two seniors combined for 21 points and 3 3-point shots in Saturday’s win over Florida. While UK leads the SEC in 3-point percentage, the Wildcats are 12th in the conference in number of 3s made. Grady and Mintz have 127 of Kentucky’s 194 3-point baskets. Considering that death and taxes are about the only things as dependable as Oscar Tshiebwe inside, a sharp SEC Tournament from one or both of Kentucky’s veteran shooters is absolutely key in Tampa for balance.
5. Bounce back quickly
The only real problem for Kentucky is Tampa is that the schedule is brutal — not just in terms of opponents, but in terms of timing. The Wildcats will play in the late game on Friday, meaning that the Wildcats, if they win, will have to bounce back for a semifinal game, likely against Tennessee, about 14-15 hours after the end of their prior game. A win there would take UK, about 22 hours later, to the Tournament final. For a team that plays just 7 players for most of the game, winning 3 games in around 40 hours could be a tall order.