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Kentucky Wildcats Morning Quickies: Basketball Season Crossroads Edition

The next three games represent a critical period for Kentucky basketball this season. It’s a long way back from 0-3 or 1-2 in these particular contests, so the Wildcats need an urgency for wins.

Utah v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, and welcome to the Tuesday Morning Quickies. A warning in advance — I’m operating on only four hours of sleep, so I apologize in advance for any… slip-ups in today’s Quickies.

What’s on the mind of the Big Blue Nation today is the basketball team, which is coming to a crossroads in the season that will have significant implications for the post-season. To this point, Kentucky has exactly zero top-tier or “A” wins in Ken Pomeroy’s statistical reckoning. In fact, Kentucky has exactly zero “B” wins in that same reckoning, which means it has no “quality” KenPom wins at all to date.

To be fair, the Wildcats have had only two opportunities for such wins, versus Duke and versus Seton Hall. But starting this Saturday in the United Center in Chicago, opportunities are one thing that won’t be lacking.

Kentucky is currently in a situation similar to 2014, where they lost to Michigan State in the Champion’s Classic, then didn’t see another quality team until Providence in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. UK won that game, and promptly lost to Baylor and North Carolina with a Boise St. win sandwiched in there.

This season the easy games are all over. There will be no bounce-back opportunities, it’s all high-wire-without-a-net stuff. Kentucky will play the next three games away from home against high-quality foes. It’s both an opportunity to excel and a chance to make a high NCAA Tournament seed a real uphill battle. Back in 2014, the SEC was littered with 2nd tier and cupcake teams. This year, KenPom reckons that out of the 18 conference games in the SEC, fully 11 of them are top-tier “A” games.

So for Kentucky, while chances to get big wins abound, these games are all much harder than we’ve seen in recent years, not just individually but collectively. Kentucky desperately needs to go at least 1-1 against North Carolina and Louisville to avoid a precipitous decline in the polls and a long, hard road back. 1-2 for the road trip would also be a big hit.

Regarding the North Carolina game, there are three things that will help UK win that aren’t shooting-related:

  • Avoid turnovers. Kentucky’s offensive efficiency correlates very strongly with turnover percentage in the limited games they’ve played.
  • Rebound the ball. Against Utah, UK had their 2nd worst OR% of the season, and their worst DR%. Turnovers and hot 3-point shooting covered that, but North Carolina is a great rebounding team.
  • Get more assists. Last year’s team had a much higher assist rate, and what this usually indicates is they were getting easier shots. This season, the assist rate is down, and looks very much like the 2016 team’s assist rate. But 2016 offset that with a very low turnover rate.

Defensively, Kentucky just has to find a way to guard the three better. I have no doubt that’s getting plenty of emphasis.

Kentucky’s season really needs both the UNC and Louisville games to be victories, but that’s not going to come easy away from home where the young Wildcats have really struggled. Louisville, in particular, figures to have a very hostile crowd and high interest with a new coach and an unexpectedly solid squad. North Carolina is almost talented as Kentucky, and significantly more experienced.

We have come to a crucial juncture in Kentucky’s 2018 season. It would be important in any case, but after having dropped their only two quality contests so far, these next two games have a magnified import.

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