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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: As he goes, so go the Kentucky Wildcats

He may not be the most talented player, but he is certainly the most important.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It is easy to pick apart Tuesday night’s ugly loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks. It was the Kentucky Wildcats’ worst showing to date, and there was a lot not to like.

But with all of the questions that it may have raised about this team’s ability and character, it made one thing abundantly clear: The most important player is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

He very well may not be the most talented. Kevin Knox, at times, looks like a budding superstar that can score at will and can play either as a stretch-4 or big guard in the NBA. But he actually had an impressive outing on Tuesday, leading the team in points (21) and rebounds (8), and Kentucky still lost.

Knox may now have some competition for the most talented and versatile player on the team, as Jarred Vanderbilt was pulling rebounds from the rafters and throwing Peyton Manning laser passes in his season debut. But let’s give that one some time first.

Even before the magical haircut and the injury to Quade Green, Kentucky’s success has perfectly mirrored that of Gilgeous-Alexander. Let’s look at some numbers.

The Kentucky Wildcats currently have a record of 14-4, and SGA’s performance in those 4 losses have been his worst of the season.

  • In each of those four losses, he has shot below 43% from the field (including a season low 33% on Tuesday), while shooting above that mark in every win.
  • In 3 of Kentucky’s 4 losses, Gilgeous-Alexander has 5 or more turnovers. In all other games, he is averaging just over 2 turnovers per game.
  • In all 4 losses, he has been unable to get to the free throw line. Gilgeous-Alexander has had 2 or fewer free throw attempts (0 on Tuesday) in every loss, while averaging almost 5 attempts in games that Kentucky has won. This is a big one considering he is Kentucky’s best free throw shooter at 82%.

Statistics aside, it has been clear within the first five minutes of each game whether Gilgeous-Alexander was “on” that day or not. His body control, his ball handling, and his ability to finish at the rim have been on display early in each outing, and when he looks uncomfortable from the tip you can bet on it being a bad day. And when he has a bad day, his teammates tend to follow suit in both their effort and their execution.

All things considered, I truly believe this team will be fine come tournament time. But it seems obvious that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is Kentucky’s most important player, and both his teammates and the coaching staff would do well to put him in positions to be successful.

For a long run in March, the Wildcats need him to be at his best. And if he is, there is no doubt they could end up in San Antonio at the Final Four.