At the beginning of this year, when Enes Kanter was presumed to be eligible at some point for the Kentucky Wildcats this season, fans had very high hopes -- even Final Four hopes -- for this team, which did not seem all that unreasonable. Add great shooting, great passing, and great talent to a major force in the paint and the sum often comes up to NCAA championship contender.
But something happened on the way to the Final Four for Kentucky, and that something was the NCAA declaration that Enes Kanter is not, nor will ever be, eligible to play basketball for an NCAA institution, except for an intramural team. When the appeals were exhausted, so were UK fans' patience. But in the end, that particular Final Four contender was a dream that will never be realized.
The fear, though, that Kentucky might not have enough of a post presence to compete has been dispelled by the excellent rebounding and solid interior play of Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones. So far, everyone on this team has been what they were supposed to be this season with the possible exception of Darius Miller. As a junior, many expected Miller to be much more of an impact player than he has been, although he has shown some signs of becoming that player in the last two games. But aside from that and the revelation that is Harrellson, there have been no real surprises on this Kentucky team save for one other very important one -- a 3-6 road record (I'm counting the Portland Pilots in the Rose Garden as a road game).
We have already examined in detail what the statistics say, and they tell a reasonably convincing story that Kentucky has lost on the road not because they shoot poorly, or because their offense is substantially worse, but because for whatever reason, the Wildcats have not been able to stop opponents in their own gym. Cases in point: Mississippi Rebels, a season 35% 3-point shooting team, racks up 8-17 for 46% against UK, their fourth-best output of the season, and all the other teams they shot better against were terrible. Florida Gators, a 66% free throw shooting team makes 18-22 versus Kentucky (82%), their second-best percentage all year. Vanderbilt Commodores, 11-20 from 3 for 55% against UK, their best showing of the year, to go along with 20-23 from the line, their second best percentage this year.
The bottom line is, and has been, that UK has struggled with hot opponents on the road. SEC opponents in particular have made 3-point shots at a very high percentage, as well as an uncharacteristically high percentage of free throws. In other words, Kentucky's opponents have simply played some of their best basketball against the Wildcats, and even though Kentucky played well in every one of those games, they didn't play quite well enough.
What a coach sees, though is that his defense is not performing on the road. You know you aren't going to get the benefit of a friendly whistle in most SEC road games, and so you have to make up for it by forcing bad shots. But when you do that and the team makes them, it's tough to take.
Kentucky will now travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in an attempt to win their third SEC game in a row and first road win in over a month. Of course, Kentucky needs this to continue their march toward a top four seed, and another road setback, particularly to the low-RPI Hawgs, would do great violence to that hope. Joe Lunardi of ESPN currently has Kentucky a 5-seed, but more than one more loss before the SEC tournament could easily put the 'Cats closer to a 6 or 7 than a 5, although that may not be a bad thing considering the 6 doesn't face the 1 until the regional final. A 5 gets the 1 seed in the Sweet Sixteen.
So how far can Kentucky go? Here is a brief SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis:
- 3-point shooting. Great perimeter shooting is always a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is over 40% on the year and almost 40% in conference, good enough for 10th in the land and 3rd in the SEC.
- Good free throw shooting. Kentucky is now up to 71% overall, 73% in conference. That's solid.
- Guard play. Kentucky's guards are really skilled and don't turn the ball over. The Wildcats are currently the 10th best ballhandling team in the nation. They can beat you off the bounce, at the rim, and just about everywhere else.
- Terrence Jones. Terrence Jones is just a man-child that is close to getting the "beast" classification hung on him.
- A shut-down defender in DeAndre Liggins.
- Depth. Seven deep is barely deep enough in the NCAA tournament, but currently, UK is getting very few minutes from the seventh man.
- Rebounding. Despite a good overall effort from Harrellson and Jones, Kentucky is only 99th nationally and 9th in the SEC in OR%
- 3pt shooting defense. The stats don't lie. Kentucky is currently allowing 35.5% 3-point shooting in conference games, and that's 9th in the league. Yes, some is due to otherworldly percentages as I mentioned above from a few foes, but it has to be considered a weakness.
- Size. Even with Harrellson and Jones in the game, Kentucky is not a big team inside.
- Post play. Unlike last year, Kentucky cannot pound the ball into the paint at will, and others can.
- Win out, especially considering UK would have to beat 2 current top 25 teams to do it, and Kentucky has a chance at a 3 seed, which is a good place to be if you can't be a 1 or 2.
- Tournament setup. A middle seed this year might not be a bad place to play in the tournament. Kentucky has easily handled teams that will wind up in this range all year.
- Defensive improvement. If Kentucky improves as little as 5% in defensive efficiency, it will be a very dangerous team come tournament time.
- Neutral court games. Kentucky has played very well versus opponents on neutral courts.
- Injury. This Kentucky team is thin, and every player is needed for it to succeed. An injury to any one of the top six players is a major threat to this team's success.
- Continued overachievement by opponents. We have run into several buzz saws, but that might not be the last of them.
- A bad loss. Kentucky's worst loss so far was to Ole Miss on the road, but a bad loss to a weak team (either Arkansas or an early SEC tournament round) could really hurt this team's NCAA seed.
- Two road losses. If Kentucky loses its remaining two road games, a top four seed will not happen
It is pretty optimistic, at this point, to think Kentucky might get as far as the Elite Eight, but there is plenty of upside left in this Wildcat team, particularly defensively. If the 'Cats can up the defensive part of their effort without sacrificing much offense, there is really no telling how far they can go, although a lot will depend on the matchups they draw in the tournament.
Luck is always a factor in any one-and-out tournament. Kentucky is due for a little of that.