Kentucky rolled to its sixth straight SEC Tournament championship game after solid wins over both Georgia and surging Alabama. The Cats are rolling at just the right time, right on cue. As the calendar hits March, Kentucky and coach John Calipari show up on the radar of those who have spent the season using every Wildcat loss to confirm how they expect Kentucky’s youth and inexperience to be its doom in the tournament. But every year, Calipari’s team gels at just the right time as the 2017-18 version of the Wildcats seem to be doing. Here are three reasons why the Wildcats are on this roll and why I expect it to continue.
Winning with Defense
Kentucky locked down Tide freshman Collin Sexton in the first half, limiting Alabama’s offense to just 0.63 points per possession (PPP) for the first twenty minutes. But after Sexton woke up, Alabama’s offense started to find its way, climbing to 0.98 for the game. This defensive performance comes after the Wildcats held the Bulldogs of Georgia to just 0.84 PPP.
Kentucky’s defense is hitting its stride at just the right time. The defensive performance against the Bulldogs was the fifth best SEC tournament performance in the Calipari era, while the first half against the Crimson Tide was one of Kentucky’s best defensive halves in a long time.
What about the Offense?
The defense has been incredible, but what about the offense? Kentucky scored on its last nine possessions of the Alabama game, on its way to 84.2 percent shooting from the field in the second half. The hot shooting propelled the Cats to 1.34 PPP in the game, one of the Wildcats best offensive performances in the SEC tournament under Cal.
You don’t need to be a basketball expert to know that if Kentucky is playing efficient offense AND defense, that could lead to scoring more points than your opponent, which I think is good. Kentucky is playing some of its most efficient basketball in the SEC tournament since Calipari arrived in Lexington, and that’s a good sign for continued March success.
Feed the Big Fellas
Wenyen Gabriel’s incredible seven three pointers against the Tide came in part because opposing defenses cheat off of Kentucky’s shooters to help on drivers in the lane. Gabriel popped out to the three point line and connected on 7-7. Gabriel isn’t the only big guy making an impact though. PJ Washington has been key in Kentucky’s late season turnaround.
Over Kentucky’s last six games (prior to the Alabama game), Washington has improved his scoring average by more than double. Good things tend to happen when Washington gets the ball in the post. I tracked every time Washington got the ball in a post up opportunity against Alabama. In the six possessions he got the ball on the low block, he either scored or assisted on 10 Wildcat points. A low post pass to Washington is about as efficient as it gets for Kentucky’s offense.
Kentucky is a different team in St. Louis than it was in Gainesville, Florida last week or at any point earlier in the year. This March version of the Wildcats is getting it done on both ends of the court. Everything is coming together for the Wildcats at just the right time, and I think Kentucky’s best effort is good enough to continue on.