The Kentucky Wildcats (30-1, 16-0 SEC) begin its quest for SEC Tournament championship banner No. 28, and national title No. 8, with a 1:00 ET quarterfinal match-up with the LSU Tigers (18-13, 7-9 SEC), a team UK dismantled in Baton Rouge, 74-50.
Even though UK coach John Calipari does not relish conference tourneys, Wildcat fans revel in the fact that the 'Cats have won 27 of the 52 SEC post season get-togethers. The program with the next most conference crowns is Alabama with six. 'Cat fans like domination, and that's domination.
So as March envelopes the Bluegrass, the time to win is upon us. After a season to remember, with memories surely stored on disc or memory banks, the reason they play the game is here. There is no better time than now for a team to be playing its best basketball. Are the 'Cats? Here are seven reasons why March Madness just might be replaced by Peaking 'Cats.
Davis is one of only a handful of college players throughout history who don't have to score a point to be the best player on the floor.
And the big man is only getting better: Over the last three games, Davis has missed only six of 29 shot attempts, good for a 79.3 shooting percentage, (incredibly) improving on his 66.3% field goal shooting on the season. Want more? In his last 10 games, Davis has made 31-of-39 free throws (79.5%), making him that much more valuable, especially down the stretch of a tight game. Finally, the man who doesn't shoot enough (he averages 8.3 shots per game), is averaging 16.4 points per game over the last 18 contests.
UK coach John Calipari on Davis:
"Could you imagine if we went to Davis every possession, could you imagine if he shot 22 times a game? Could you imagine if he played that way, how good he would be, the shots he would take, the 3s he would have taken well before (now). The behind the back dribble by a kid that is 6'11" ... We're letting him shoot 3s because he went in the (3-point shooting ) drill, and I said, 'if you make 45 (3s), I'll let you shoot 3s,' and he made 47.
"He was doing jumping jacks and did a cart wheel, so we put a play in to let him shoot 3s. He's a special player, I'm not taking anything away from (Kansas') Thomas Robinson. He is an outstanding player, he is tough, hard-nosed, he wills them to win. I like my guy."
The SEC Player of the Year gets better every time he takes a breath.
Jones, Terrence -- Jones, since his hiccup at Indiana where he was non-existent except for a nasty length-of-court drive resulting in a thunderous dunk, and finger injury suffered the next game against Chattanooga, has been the Terrence Jones 'Cat fans have come to appreciate over his one-and-a-half years on campus: a powerful player in the paint, capable of taking his man off the dribble for a rim run, and defending the paint with passion.
Over the last 16 games, Jones is averaging 13.3 points per game (compared to 11.2 ppg through his first 13 games), and over the last six games, Jones has found his shooting groove, making 36-of-62 shots, good for 58.1% accuracy. In the last six games, Jones has risen to the occasion defensively, also, blocking 13 shots (2.2 bpg).
While some in the UK fan base were openly worried about the possibility of Jones going MIA for the season after his "lost" performance against IU (Jones averaged 3.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game the next three games after IU), the sophomore has responded like a champion, re-gaining the form which led to him being named the SEC preseason Player of the Year.
When Jones is Jones, the 'Cats are (almost) insurmountable.
Teague, Marquis -- Another player who gave Wildcat fans pause during the course of the year, Teague has grown into his roll as ball distributor, first, and ball shooter, second. And that's not an easy transition to make, going from primary scorer of the ball in high school, to primary ball distributor in college. Teague, though, has completed the process (although he still at times takes an unfortunate shot), and looks like a point guard capable of orchestrating a championship.
Get this, over the last 13 games Teague has handed out 70 assists (5.4 apg) and committed only 30 turnovers (2.3 tpg), for an excellent 2.3 a/to ratio (the previous eight games Teague had 30 assists and 30 turnovers). Plus, he's shooting the ball better, making him more versatile and therefore more of an offensive threat when needed: over the last four games, Teague has nailed 5-of-11 trey tries (45.5%), while during the season he made only 32.8% from beyond the arc. The free throw line has much kinder to Teague recently, also, as he's made 9-of-11 charity stripe attempts over the last three games (81.8%). For the year, Teague shoots 70.6% from the line.
The light bulb coming on has clearly illuminated Teague's ability to see the game plan, while his sheer talent does the rest.
Miller, Darius -- The ultimate glue guy. The ultimate clutch player, Miller has become a primary scoring threat inside the game's final minutes, and as the 'Cats embark on their title run, Miller is the man most likely to make the pass, grab the rebound, get the deflection, or hit the shot, to send Kentucky to victory in that sure-to-come closer-than-expected victory.
Accepting his six man role without question, Miller has thrived, becoming the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year. It's that attitude, that anything-to-win-attitude, which makes Miller so dangerous to opponents, and so key for the Wildcats. He also brings to the floor a been there, done that resume,' which means he knows when to turn on the jets.
And considering Miller's rising numbers over the last few weeks, it's safe to assume the "jets" are ignited: in the last four games, deferential Darius has averaged 11.6 points per game (and increase of almost two-points over his season average), while dialing in the 3-pointer with great accuracy -- 43.3% -- over the last six games (for the year, Miller makes 38.8% of his trey attempts). Making free throws in one-and-done formats can be huge, something not lost on Miller, as he's made six of his last seven from the line (85.7%).
And in an impressive display of leadership a team as young as UK's needs, this is Miller answering a question about the squad being consumed with winning:
"That's all we are focused on. We want to win every game and the national championship. We feel like we have the opportunity to do that. We take every day to try and get better and try to prepare ourselves to win a national championship.
Miller is gearing up. Just as he did last year before winning the SEC Tournament MVP.
Lamb, Doron -- Kentucky's designated sharp-shooter has held true to his reputation by shooting the ball with remarkable accuracy all year. But even Lamb has picked up his already steady production: coming into conference play, Lamb had made 28-of-61 shots from distance (45.9%), but against league competition, Lamb shredded the nets half the time, making 32-of-64.
While Lamb's contributions from beyond the arc are well documented, his newfound ability to handle the rock (and make strong decisions with the ball) has received relatively little fan fare. Pressed into action at the point on several occasions this year, especially late in the season, Lamb has responded by making good decisions, and taking great care of the ball -- In his last five games, a total of 161 minutes of play, Lamb has committed only one turnover, while dishing out eight assists. Uh, pretty impressive.
At least once in the next few weeks, Lamb will bail out UK by competently playing the point in relief of Teague, and he'll probably toss in a few key 3-pointers along the way, as only the cold-blooded can do.
Kidd-Gilchrist, Michael -- Not unlike his freshman counterpart Davis, MKG needn't score one point to be a dangerous, dangerous player. Kidd-Gilchrist is the man who draws the opponents' most critical scorer ... and proceeds to shadow the poor schmuck like grim death. MKG shuts people down. Period.
But even the man who defends with pride is following the Wildcat trend of improving his offensive production, for over the last four games, MKG has nailed 17-of-34 shots (50.0%), after making only 8-of-23 from the the field the four games previous (37.8%), and 47.5% on the year.
When Kidd-Gilchrist takes good shots, he makes a high percentage, but like most anyone else, when he struggles with shot selection, his percentage suffers. It looks, though, as if Kidd-Gilchrist has conquered the "bad shot" demon which bedevils so many players.
What should not be forgotten, though, is that UK's improved offensive numbers are based on the 'Cats playing significantly stiff defense. Without the pressure, without making the opposition work their tail off just to get a decent shot ... that's what allows UK to dominate down the stretch against a most times tiring opponent. That's what allows Kentucky to create offensive opportunities with run-outs leading to easy, transition baskets.
And a high percentage of the time, MKG is the man to thank for creating such scoring opportunities. A role I expect MKG will continue to thrive in.
Wiltjer, Kyle -- The Shooter just shoots. And makes, even though he most times comes into the game cold, fresh off the bench. But how about this stupid good number: over the last eight games, Wiltjer has made 11-of-16 three-point tries. That's 68.8%. He's made threes when Kentucky needed points -- against Ole Miss, Wiltjer scored eight points (six on treys) in right at three minutes, helping UK gain separation after the game was tied at 24 -- and he's made threes to extend the lead -- he nailed two of UK's seven consecutive 3-pointers last week against Georgia. Wiltjer has found his rhythm (as if it was ever lost).
He has also taken care of the basketball (read: he hasn't hurt the team), committing only two turnovers in his last 63 minutes of action (covering six games).
Simply put, Wiltjer gives Calipari a legitimate seventh option. An option who can score in bunches, and take care of the basketball, while on the improve defensively.
Put all the parts together, put all the stats together, put all that one has seen over the last several weeks together, and this team is primed to perform. And although the most talented squad doesn't always win the brass ring, it's always good to have the best team.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!