Survive and advance. It’s March. It’s the NCAA Tournament. All that matters is moving forward. By 1 point or 100, teams just have to get the win. And that’s what the University of Kentucky Wildcats did on Friday night by defeating the Northern Kentucky Norse 79-70. It wasn’t pretty, but tournament games aren’t beauty contests.
The game wasn’t as close as the score might indicate. Midway through the second half, the Wildcat lead was 18. Combining some timely shooting from NKU and too many empty offensive trips for UK and the Norse cut the lead to 7 with just a few minutes left. Obviously, the score was closer than most people in the Big Blue Nation anticipated, but that’s what happens when you play a smaller school from your state that is appearing in its first ever NCAA tournament and the game doesn’t start until 10:05 and ends closer to 12:30am.
The Wildcats were led by freshman big man Bam Adebayo’s 15 points and 18 rebounds as he shot 5-9 from the floor and was 5-6 from the FT line. De’Aaron Fox is back to his old ways and led the Cats with 19 points and also dished out 3 assists. Isaiah Briscoe, often the recipient of unnecessary ire from the BBN finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. Lavonne Holland led the Norse in scoring with 22 points and Carson Williams had 21.
Kentucky had 12 turnovers, most of the unforced variety and shot a dismal 3-17 from the three point line and SEC leading scorer Malik Monk scored 12 points on 3-11 shooting (0-6 from three) and was only able to get into double figures late into the game as he finished 6-7 from the FT line.
On Sunday, the Cats will face off against 10 seed Wichita State, the team that Kentucky eliminated from the 2014 tournament and sparked their run to the NCAA title game. The personnel is different, but the teams are almost the same. The Shocker has the veteran-heavy squad and the Wildcats are once again led by freshman who are still finding their way. In 2014, Wichita State was the undefeated number 1 seed that had to take on 8th seeded Kentucky after the Cats lackluster 7 point win over Kansas State. Will the Cats be able to “right the ship” with another victory over the shockers?
To advance to Memphis and the South Regional, the Wildcats must be sharper on offense and focused on defense. Malik Monk is going to have to be Malik Monk, the Cats will not make a run if he’s not generating the offense that we’ve seen him provide all year. And De’Arron Fox is going to have to once again value the basketball, Fox had 6 turnovers to his 3 assists and no matter how good he scores, your point guard simply can’t have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
It goes without saying that Kentucky has the personnel to defeat Wichita State and advance. But as CBS analyst Clark Kellogg notes: talent and athletic ability only do so much. Basketball is a game of skill and while talent and athletic ability can enhance skill, you have to be able to play highly skilled basketball to advance. The bell is ringing and it’s time for the Wildcats to answer it.