It's been an up-and-down season with more frustrating losses than we all care to remember. The Wildcats have a record of 21-8 overall but are sitting atop the SEC standings with the regular season title in their grasp.
But the regular season isn't what these players and coaches are striving for; it's the postseason that matters the most. The non-conference games and conference games are all about building towards the signal goal of winning a championship in a one-and-done tournament format.
The seven losses on the road won't matter in March as there are no true road games. What's going to matter is how a team fairs in a neutral court setting. What matters is the roster. What matters is the mentality. What matters is the experience of a coach and his success in March.
There are reasons to feel good about the 'Cats chances in the next and there are also reasons to not feel confident. Let's investigate.
Reasons to Feel Good about a Run
Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray- There isn't a better backcourt in the country and March is built on guard play. In recent tournaments, we have seen players like Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier get hot at the right time and will their team to national titles. Jamal Murray is arguably the hottest player in the country. We all know his numbers and the records he is shattering at home and on the road. He is showing up and showing out game in and game out.
Tyler Ulis is made for this. He is a floor general and there isn't a player in the NCAA that can change the complexion of a game like he can. In the tournament, he will be facing players and coaches that have not faced him before, and I like Tyler Ulis in those match-ups. He is a National Player of the Year Candidate and, teamed up with Jamal, he is as dangerous as any player right now.
John Calipari- There isn't a coach right now that has had the success of John Calipari in March since he has been at Kentucky. Since 2009, his teams have one Elite Eight, four Final Fours, two National Title games, and a National Title of which to boast. He is 47-15 in the NCAA tournament. There is a reason why we continue to see teams coached by John Calipri make deep runs in March, the guy knows what he's doing.
Whatever a team's faults, he always seems to find a way to press the right buttons at the end of the season.
Neutral Court Success- The Wildcats are 2-1 on a neutral court this season. The beat the Duke Blue Devils by 10 in the Champions Classic, beat the South Florida Bulls by 21 on a neutral court in Miami, and lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes by seven in Brooklyn. The one loss came in a game that Ohio State shot 50% from three (they are shooting 33% for the season) and the Wildcats looked completely out of it from the tip. This was another game like the one against Vanderbilt on Saturday where Jamal Murray went off for 33 but did not get much help from his teammates.
We all know Big Blue Nation will travel and those neutral court games will be more like home games, especially early on in the tournament.
Derek Willis (Part One)- If Derek Wills can get healthy in time for the tournament, then Kentucky is as good as anybody. He stretches the floor and adds a third scorer to compliment Ulis and Murray. With Willis in the line-up, the middle is unpacked and this allows our bigs to go one-on-one and catch lobs from Tyler Ulis.
Derek also adds rebounding and toughness on defense. Who would have thought that would ever be the case?
The Field- This is a weak field compared to the last couple of seasons. There isn't a super team out there that scares you to death. The only team I would feel confident about penciling into a Final Four sport right now is Michigan State because of Tom Izzo, Matt Costello, and Denzel Valentine. Kentucky isn't any better or any worse than any team in the field. It's all about match-ups this season.
Reasons to Not Feel Good about a Run
Is Tyler Running out of Gas?- John Calipari says this isn't an issue, but one has to think that minutes that Tyler is playing is catching up with him. He didn't look like himself against Vanderbilt. He was 5-20 from the field and 0-7 from the three point line. Was that an outlier or are his legs starting to go? Luckily there is a lot of downtime between games, so this could be a good opportunity for Ulis to rest up and get back to form.
Free Throw Shooting- If Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, or Derek Willis are at the line, we should all be feeling pretty good. Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins are serviceable. Everybody else pretty much stinks. Isaiah Briscoe and Marcus Lee are two of the worst free throw shooters to ever play at Kentucky. I'm not saying that to be mean, it's a fact. Skal Labissiere and Issac Humphries are ok at the line, but the way they play their game is not conducive to free throw shooting. They play away from the basket on offense, not under it.
This could be a major issue when the game is late and on the line. Can Cal keep Briscoe and Lee off the court? They are two of the team's better players, but if he cannot trust them to win the game a the line, will he keep them in the game?
The Bigs- Ugh. The worst thing about this is that we have seen flashes from our big men. Marcus Lee has had three double-doubles this season. Isaac Humphries will block shots and rebound, but against quality post players like Damian Jones, he is a liability. At this point in the season, I don't expect Skal to contribute in any meaningful capacity. And I'm not sure if Alex is 100% physically or mentally.
There are too many questions at this position and if Kentucky runs into a team like Purdue early in the tournament, it could be lights out. Terrence Jones, Demarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis isn't walking through that door.
Derek Wills (Part Two)- If Derek Willis is not ready to play and comfortable by the tournament, I don't like this team's chances at all. He is so important to this team and how other teams defend them. Without Willis, our bigs are worse. Without Willis, Alex Poythress has to be a factor on offense and I'm not confident that can happen. Without Willis, Ulis and Murray have to shoulder the load on offense all on their own.
Officiating- This isn't what you think. I don't think there is a vast conspiracy against Kentucky this season, but NCAA college basketball officials have been atrocious and Kentucky, more often than not, finds itself on the short end of that stick. Maybe it's the way Kentucky plays or college refs are more inclined than usual to give the calls to the home team the calls.
Here is my point: I do not feel comfortable with the officials making the correct calls in crunch time in the tournament. And that's not just for Kentucky, that's for every team. I know the NCAA is supposed to put the best of the best in the tournament, but would you feel good if Doug Sirmons or Pat Adams walked onto the floor to call the game for the 'Cats? Neither would I.
What do you think, dear readers? Do you like Kentucky's chances? If you had to add anything to either category, what would it be?