Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

It has been almost five calendar years since Kentucky played a game beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. While there is reason for optimism that this year’s team could be the first one in a while to make a deep run, Tuesday night’s loss at South Carolina showed how the No. 6 Wildcats remain an unfinished product heading into the final two games of January.

With six freshmen now part of the rotation after the NCAA’s clearance of Croatian big man Zvonimir Ivišić, UK needs its young stars to play beyond their years at a time when age and experience are more prevalent than ever. They have done it in impressive spurts, such as in a win over No. 3 North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic and a 105-point showing Saturday against Georgia

There have also been cringeworthy moments, such as a Dec. 2 home loss to UNC Wilmington and Tuesday night’s dud performance, which resulted in South Carolina’s largest-ever win against a top-10 foe. Is Kentucky for real? To some that question has already been answered with an emphatic yes. To others, the Wildcats may be more flash than substance as February approaches.

For this week’s Dribble Handoff our writers are evaluating that question and offering their projections for how the rest of Kentucky’s season will play out.

UK doesn’t get top-four seed but still a Final Four threat

Predicted conference record: 12-6Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 5

I still think Kentucky has the sport’s most talented and deepest roster and thus still believe the Wildcats can be legitimate national title contenders nearly regardless of what seed they get on Selection Sunday. But I am starting to be skeptical that UK will get a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, and I think a No. 5 seed-or-worse now seems more likely than a No. 2 seed because the Wildcats’ resume remains shaky.

They’re only 2-3 in Q1.

They have a Q3 loss at home to UNC-Wilmington.

And the way they’re currently guarding — UK is 121st in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to BartTorvik.com — suggests the Wildcats might not even be headed for a top-three finish in the SEC. Still, don’t ever forget, John Calipari had a super-talented roster in 2014 that similarly had ups and downs throughout the season and only got a No. 8 seed on Selection Sunday before flipping a switch during the NCAA Tournament and advancing all the way to the title game — and that’s among the reasons I’m not too interested in living and dying with every UK win or loss right now. The Wildcats still have seven-plus weeks before the bracket is set, and as long as they’re playing well by then they’ll have a reasonable shot to win a national championship regardless of what seed the committee gives them. — Gary Parrish

Kentucky has zero bad losses the rest of the season 

Predicted conference record: 12-6Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 4

In a sentence: More big wins and zero bad losses from here on out will lead Kentucky to its first Sweet 16 since 2019. The defensive issues are SIGNIFICANT, and I believe some of them will be resolved. UK ranks all the way down at 98th in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com, but I’ll say Calipari’s team does enough to get that number around 70th by the time we get to March. That’s still concerning enough to make anyone hesitate about picking Kentucky to win the national title, but with how talented and deep this team is, I expect Kentucky to win a lot of games in which the race is on to 80 points or more. Nobody has a more talented bench than this team, and Kentucky’s destined to average better than 85 points this season. (It’s at 89.9 right now, No. 3 nationally.) 

With a 4-2 SEC record heading into the weekend, I’ve got UK only lose four more times before the postseason, all of those losses being of Quad 1 variety: vs. Tennessee (Feb. 3), at Auburn (Feb. 17), at Mississippi State (Feb. 27), at Tennessee (March 9). All the others are wins … even a narrow one coming this weekend against Arkansas, I believe. Kentucky makes the SEC Tournament title game and breezes through the first weekend of the NCAAS.   — Matt Norlander

Lackluster defense holds Wildcats back

Predicted conference record: 12-6Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 4

Kentucky’s defensive problems are real and pose a threat to its chances of making a March run. The Wildcats have given up 73 or more points against all 10 major conference opponents they have faced and haven’t held anyone below 60 since opening night. Part of that is explained by how fast the Wildcats are playing. But advanced metrics reinforce the assertion that defense is a major issue. UK ranks No. 98 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom and 10th in the SEC after Tuesday’s loss. 

The Wildcats have excellent rim protection, but their perimeter defense leaves something to be desired. The primary culprits appear to be starting guards Antonio Reeves and DJ Wagner. Both have a negative defensive rating in evanmiya.com’s DBPR metric which, “reflects the defensive value a player brings to his team when he is on the court.”

Kentucky’s neutral site win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 16 is still the team’s only victory against a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25 poll. The only other Quad 1 win on UK’s resume is an 87-85 win at Florida on Jan. 6, and the Gators aren’t looking like an NCAA Tournament team. There’s been a lot of flash and sizzle with the Wildcats. Certainly, their watchability has skyrocketed amid major offensive advances. But unless the defense improves by leaps and bounds, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats advancing beyond the Sweet 16. — David Cobb

Kentucky falls just short of the Final Four

Predicted conference record: 13-5Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 3

Let’s start with some good news. This is the most fun Kentucky team that I’ve personally watched in years. The Wildcats are exciting and have the perfect mix of freshmen stars and experienced veterans that can equal a deep run come March. Kentucky hasn’t made it past the first weekend of the tournament since 2019 but this should be the year the Wildcats make it to the Sweet 16. 

As Cobb mentioned above, Kentucky’s defense may ultimately hold the Wildcats back from reaching the Final Four, but I think this team can make it to the Elite Eight if they get the right draw in the bracket. If I had to pick a team to make the Final Four from the SEC right now, I would go with Tennessee.

Speaking of the Vols, Kentucky plays them twice in the next seven weeks. The first matchup is at Rupp Arena on Feb. 3 and the second (and final conference game of the season) is on the road March 9. Those two games will play a big factor in the SEC title race and potential seeding in the NCAA Tournament. A fun wrinkle for Kentucky is the fact it hosts Gonzaga in a nonconference game on Feb. 10. 

While the Zags are having a down season by their standards, that will be another chance to rack up another win on Kentucky’s resume. The Wildcats were playing like one of the best teams in the country prior to the loss against South Carolina on Tuesday and they certainly have the talent to win it all. The real question is, what version of Kentucky will we get come March? The answer to that question will determine their ceiling. — Cameron Salerno

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