The arrival of March can mean only one thing: March Madness. With Kentucky finishing up its regular season on Saturday at Texas A&M, the SEC and NCAA tournaments are quickly approaching. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the Cats enter the craziness that is March.
No. 5: Defensive Intensity
For as much scrutiny as the Cats have faced about their defensive efficiency over the course of the season, Kentucky is actually beginning to improve their team defense at just the right time. Over the past six games, the Cats have held five of their six opponents under 70 points, and have given up an average of 64.7 points per game. Also in that time, opponents are shooting 41.5% from the field, and just 25.2% from three. Kentucky actually ranks 29th in the country in three-point percentage defense. While certainly not staggering numbers, there is a clear improvement over where the defense was two months ago. It’s also worth noting that the Cats got back into the game against Vanderbilt on Tuesday after resorting to a full-court press that got the Commodores out of system and forced some much-needed turnovers. Keep an eye out to see if Coach Cal resorts back to the press if the Cats ever find themselves in a deep hole against a team in the tournament.
No. 4: Turnovers
Being a team that’s as heavily guard-oriented as Kentucky is, you would think that they would be fairly good when it comes to not turning the ball over. However, over the past four games, the Cats are averaging 14.5 turnovers per game, committing 17 against Missouri and 16 against Florida. While Kentucky is only averaging 12 turnovers per game on the season, the guards account for 7.2 of those, a staggering number for one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country. If Kentucky wants to make a deep run in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, they’re going to have to take better care of the ball.
No. 3: Bam Adebayo
Freshman big man Bam Adebayo is finally beginning to play like the beast that Cal has said he could be all season. Adebayo is now averaging 13.3 points per game and pulling down 7.6 rebounds a game. Bam has had star performances in games against Florida (18 points, 15 rebounds) and Missouri (22 points, 15 rebounds) where he absolutely dominated inside, putting the ball in the basket essentially any time he wanted. His point production isn’t the only thing the freshman has improved upon. Rather, he is now going after every rebound within his reach, and is grabbing almost every one of them. Bam Adebayo is perhaps one of the biggest keys to this team. When Kentucky’s guards are struggling to score, the Cats must feed the ball to the post so Bam can go to work. Because frankly, no one has proven to be able to stop him yet.
No. 2: Rebounding
Ever since the Cats were outrebounded by 25 on the road at Florida in Gainesville, it’s seemed like the team has taken it personally. Since that game, Kentucky has outrebounded every team they’ve played by an average of 10.9 rebounds. While it’s easiest to point out Bam’s increased rebounding numbers, it’s also worth noting that Kentucky’s guards are averaging a combined 12.2 rebounds a game. If the Cats can continue rebounding the ball at such a large margin the way that they have been, they are going to be in excellent shape to get the ball out in transition or acquire loads of second-chance points.
No. 1: Guards
Ultimately, though, at the heart of this team rest the guards. It’s been said all year long, but Kentucky is only going to go as far as the backcourt goes. It is crucial that they continue to improve every game, as they are the engine that run this team. De’Aaron Fox has to continue directing the offense as efficiently as he has been and use his speed to slash into the lane to make a play or get fouled when the Cats are struggling to score. Isaiah Briscoe is the leader of this team, and has to be able to calm the Cats down and make plays when they find themselves in the face of adversity. And Malik Monk has to simply continue being Malik Monk. While at times the shots he takes or turnovers he commits are questionable, you can’t deny the fact that Kentucky would be lost without him. As Cal has said multiple times this season, there simply cannot be 7-8 minute gaps where he doesn’t touch the ball. When you have a guard that scores as quickly as he does, he must be included in the offense in some way every time down the floor. When Kentucky’s guards are all playing at an elite level, there’s not many teams in the country who can beat them.
We have yet to see a game this year where Kentucky has fired on all cylinders. And while the Cats have struggled at times this season, you can’t deny the fact that they are playing their best basketball at just the right time. Coach John Calipari has made his team a contender for the title once again. And while Kentucky still has a long way to go, if they can continue improving the way they have been, we just may see them in Phoenix here in a couple of weeks.