SEC Tournament: Why Kentucky can or can't save its season in Nashville
It’s getting late for the Kentucky Wildcats. The NCAA Tournament path has looked pretty clear for the last six weeks or so, but it might as well be official. The ‘Cats and long-suffering coach John Calipari, who is semi-famous for his hatred of conference tournaments, have to win the SEC Tournament in Nashville to reach the NCAA Tournament.
At 9-15, that’s their only ticket.
Should they fail, it’ll be the first time since 2013 that Kentucky misses out on the Big Dance. Will Nashville be one final indignity for this deeply struggling Kentucky team … or will it be the place where they right the ship? Either is certainly possible …
Why UK can shine in Nashville
1. They’re hot
Kentucky went 4-2 in its final 6 regular-season games and played perhaps its most complete offensive game of the season in Saturday’s 92-64 win over South Carolina. The Wildcats are getting the best work yet from B.J. Boston and have finally given the point guard spot over to Davion Mintz, who has been Kentucky’s most consistent outside shooter. Kentucky has had very little positive momentum this year, but they have some going now.
2. A big return?
Kentucky opens Thursday against Mississippi State. Nobody’s publicly committing to it, but it seems possible that Terrence Clarke could return for the SEC Tournament. For a Kentucky team that has learned to structure itself around the lack of a natural point guard, getting Clarke back could suddenly kick the Wildcats into overdrive.
3. A reasonable bracket
Yes, if UK beats Mississippi State on Thursday, it will have to figure out a way around Alabama to reach the semifinals. But the ‘Cats haven’t played badly against the Tide, and have picked up wins over Tennessee and Florida, which they would potentially face in the semifinal. Kentucky’s bracket avoids some of the more athletic, high-scoring teams until a potential final matchup.
4. More than usual depth for UK
Maybe it’s just the result of constant struggle in this 9-15 season, but most of Calipari’s teams are really only 7-8 players deep, which can be an issue in the SEC Tournament. Kentucky has 10 players (admittedly including Clarke) who average at least 11.8 minutes per game. As Kentucky would have to win 4 games in 4 days, the extra body or two could be important.
5. The BBN
Fan support has been a weird thing in 2020-21. Kentucky’s home-court advantage has somewhat eroded in front of a crowd of 2,000 or so in Rupp Arena. But Nashville is (usually?) different. Kentucky has always traveled well for the SEC Tournament, and even if there aren’t very many butts in seats, maybe the sight of tons and tons of blue will help solidify the mojo of this battle-scarred UK squad.
Why UK can’t shine in Nashville
1. Shot selection isn’t fixable
Surely we’ve all seen the floor setup that Alabama coach Nate Oats uses for his practices by now? The forward-thinking Oats has done a phenomenal job of drilling his squad to shoot lay-ups or 3s … but not a ton of contested 17-foot jump shots. Which seems to be the official shot of Kentucky basketball.
Kentucky has been woefully bad from 2-point range, largely because the Wildcats take too many long, contested jumpers. Kentucky is shooting 41.7% for the season. That’s the worst since the 3-point shot was added … and UK is actually a decent 3-point shooting team. But the habits Oats has worked so hard to ingrain in his Tide players won’t be learned by UK in a day or a week.
2. Too many turnovers
Throughout the season, Calipari has bemoaned the couple of extra turnovers that seem to spell UK’s doom. At first glance, 344 turnovers in 24 games don’t seem to be that many, but compared with UK’s 295 assists, it definitely shows that passing isn’t a strength. Oddly, UK’s only other team under Calipari with more turnovers than assists was the 2014 squad, which reached the NCAA title game after a disappointing regular season. But Aaron Harrison hasn’t shown up to drain late 3s for this group.
3. The depth is still uncertain
Kentucky has used more players for more minutes than in most seasons, but as the team heads for postseason play, there’s not a solid rotation in use. Dontaie Allen certainly won’t be mistaken for the guy who bombed Mississippi State into submission a couple of months back, as he hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since Feb. 6. He’s also scored 5 total points since then. Likewise for forward Lance Ware. Since he played 29 minutes against Missouri on Feb. 3, he’s played a total of 26 minutes and scored 2 points. Depth is just numbers if the players aren’t used.
4. Too many opposing teams that can score
Kentucky picked a bad year to be awful on offense. The UK defense is solid enough (6th in the conference in scoring defense, 4th in field goal percentage defense). But the SEC had 5 teams that averaged over 77 points per game, and also 5 teams that had an average scoring margin of +5.6 or better.
Kentucky’s problem has been long scoreless runs, and the SEC Tournament has plenty of teams that will pull away during those droughts.