For seemingly the third time in the last four seasons, the Kentucky Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament’s “Region of Death”. Seeded among the likes of North Carolina, UCLA, Butler and Wichita State, the ‘Cats have one of the tougher paths among the high seeds towards winning their ninth national championship in the school’s illustrious history.
Does it seem likely? For some, yeah. Kentucky might be the most talented team in America that’s dancing.
For others, they’re looking at last year’s national runner-ups and one of the two teams that beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena this season as maybe too much to overcome in the South Region.
Whether you’re opportunistic about a team that’s won 11 straight games and might be the nation’s hottest team among the field of 64 or pessimistic about a team that’s 159th in the country in team 3-point percentage and 178th in team free throw percentage winning it all, Kentucky is among the teams that can win the whole thing.
How so? Well, there’s five steps to success for the ‘Cats and their run to their fifth Final Four under John Calipari since the 2009-10 season. Let’s take a look at each step, starting with Calipari’s catalyst this season.
De’Aaron Fox remaining healthy and continuing to play at a high level
Dominique Hawkins became a folk hero this past week in (BB)Nashville with his effort on both ends of the floor in Kentucky’s run to their third straight SEC Tournament title.
But, the most outstanding player of the entire tournament was another guard on Kentucky’s roster.
In Kentucky’s three wins last week, De’Aaron Fox averaged 22 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 61.8 percent from the field. With Malik Monk struggling to find his stroke and Isaiah Briscoe struggling, Fox picked up the slack in the back court and took control of the tournament for the ‘Cats.
Like I mentioned before the SEC Tournament victory for Kentucky, if they’re going to make a Final Four run and be the last team standing, De’Aaron Fox has to be the guy. Point guard play is always important in basketball, and when the Big Dance comes around, it can’t be overstated how important your point guard playing at an elite level is to a team.
Bam Adebayo dominating down low and being utilized as a screener
A pre-Round of 64 piece recently dropped from NBC Sports about nine big men across this year’s tournament that could carry their teams to the Final Four.
Bam Adebayo wasn’t on that list.
Sure, there’s the argument about Adebayo actually leading the way for Kentucky with guys like Fox, Briscoe and Malik Monk leading the charge virtually all season long, but these are Adebayo’s numbers during Kentucky’s 11-game winning streak: 13.7 points on 63.3 percent shooting with 9.8 rebounds while also making 75 percent of his free throw attempts (on 6.2 attempts per contest).
Adebayo might not be as versatile as Caleb Swanigan from Purdue or as desired as a NBA prospect as Lauri Markkanen, but he’s a physical force that has done the dirty work for Kentucky in the paint and such a load to deal with on the offensive end.
He’s not as dominant as Karl-Anthony Towns was during Kentucky’s last Final Four run, but Calipari always puts emphasis on how important having a big man that can make an impact is during the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats will need Adebayo.
Something Calipari hasn’t had much: senior leadership
When you look back at Coach Cal’s four Final Four runs since coming to Lexington, the least remembered aspect of his teams from 2011, 2012, 2015 (not so much in 2014) was that his teams included rotation pieces that had been there before.
Anthony Davis won the Most Outstanding Player in the 2012 Final Four, but Doron Lamb was the guy that hit a trio of 3-pointers and poured in a game-high 22 points against Kansas. Karl-Anthony Towns was the best prospect on the 38-1 team in 2015, but Willie Cauley-Stein was the guy with a chip on his shoulder after missing the Final Four the year prior.
The point is, the ‘Cats have experience, and that said experience with Isaiah Briscoe, Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis will come into play for the ‘Cats if they go on a run.
Briscoe provides another ball-handler and has been the glue guy all year. Mulder helps gives the offense a sense of spacing with his catch-and-shoot ability from deep. Hawkins has been a freakin’ nightmare for opposing guards with his menacing defense lately. Willis has morphed into The Brow himself lately in terms of protecting the basket.
Fox and Monk will nab some headlines with their explosiveness and future pointing towards landing inside the top 10 selections in this June’s NBA draft, but Kentucky goes nowhere without these four contributing in ways that aren’t always noticeable.
Malik Monk finding his shot and catching a few heat waves
Outside of De’Aaron Fox’s stellar play last week, not much else was talked about as much as Malik Monk’s recent shooting funk.
Since lighting up Florida back on Feb. 25 for 30 points in the second half, Monk is shooting not only 23.8 percent from 3-point range, but he’s shooting 34.4 percent from the field.
It’s no secret that Monk has saved the ‘Cats on many occasions throughout their first 34 games. Against North Carolina, he hit two massive 3-pointers (one that ended up winning the game) and scored 47 points on the top seed in Kentucky’s region.
If Kentucky’s going to make a tournament run, Malik Monk is going to have to find that groove he had again. It’s not fair to ask him to be as hot as he was in the second meeting against the Gators for six straight games, but the ‘Cats need more than 2-of-10 shooting performances from him.
Remember what Monk said during his post-game interview for CBS after the win in Las Vegas over the Tar Heels back in December. “We usually run a play for me on the first play of the game, and if I make it, I’m usually on.”
That could be a telling sign starting on Friday night in Indianapolis. Getting Monk going early and often could provide a good spark for the ‘Cats right out of the gate.
He’s their clutch shot-maker and the player that can completely take over a game with his scorching-hot heat waves in long stretches. If he finds that comfort and consistent groove again offensively, the confidence will come back and the fun will begin, which is a bad sign for potential Kentucky opponents in this tournament.
Offense brings the blue chip recruits, defense hangs banners
In that weird stretch the ‘Cats found themselves in from Jan. 24-Feb. 7 where they registered three of their five total losses this season, they gave up no less than 79 points (84 points per game in that 2-3 stretch).
Since the game of that stretch — a 92-85 win over LSU at home — Kentucky has given up less than 77 points in all 10 games (65 points per game). That points per game given up average sample size would tie them with Oregon for 33rd in the country.
For the ‘Cats to win the national title, defensive pressure has to be the focal point on top of Fox’s playmaking, Monk’s shooting, the older guys contributing (along with getting the early-season version of Wenyen Gabriel) and Adebayo dunking on the world.
On top of their ability to keep teams perimeter bound in the half-court like the possession you see above, Calipari has shown a bit of extended defensive pressure that has looked like a 3/4-court press that’s forced some turnovers in this recent stretch of games to close the season. With the athletes Kentucky possesses, don’t be surprised if backcourt pressure is used more and more.
Kentucky will hit some offensive ruts. It happens.
But, their steady improvement defensively could lead to some easier buckets, which can make a title run much more likely.