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Kentucky Basketball: I was wrong about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and 4 other thoughts

I said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was going to be good. I didn’t think he was going to become Kentucky’s best prospect and most important piece to a potential tournament run.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Championship-Tennessee vs Kentucky
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is Kentucky’s best and most important player as the NCAA Tournament nears.
Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Back in November when I wrote four things you could take away from Kentucky’s loss to Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic, one of those four talking points was the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

SGA had six of Kentucky’s 18 turnovers in that defeat, but like I mentioned back then, if it wasn’t for his energy and strong defensive performance against Naismith Player of the Year candidate Devonte’ Graham, the ‘Cats get blown out of the Windy City.

Let’s come all the way back to this point right now. The ‘Cats are SEC Tournament champions for the fourth straight year, they’re a scary 5-seed in arguably the NCAA Tournament’s toughest region and they’re playing their best basketball of this up-and-down campaign.

(Things would be pretty different if SGA decided to stay committed to being a Florida Gator, huh?)

How did this come about?

Let’s be honest about it all: Kentucky could’ve turned things around, but are they a dangerous NCAA Tournament team and a dark-horse Final Four contender without the play of SGA? We can discuss it, but ... no, they’re not.

Why? Because he’s been that good and that important in the Kentucky rotation.

I said back in November that he looked like a cousin of Dominique Hawkins, when he was really laying the foundation to become what guys like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight and De’Aaron Fox have all been under John Calipari: his team’s most important player.

Since Jan. 30 — the night where SGA scored a season-high 30 points against Vanderbilt — he’s averaged 17.2 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor, including a three-game SEC Tournament span where he scored 63 total points and dished out 20 assists.

“Everyone is looking for that first-round guarantee and he has at least that now,” ESPN NBA draft expert Mike Schmitz said after watching Gilgeous-Alexander in St. Louis. (Quote obtained via Kyle Tucker of SEC Country.)

“It would surprise me if he’s at Kentucky next year.

“It wouldn’t completely shock me if he ends up being the best point guard to come out of this draft.”

That’s not a bad uprising for a kid that originally committed to Florida, then arrived in Lexington as a lengthy combo guard-turned-Calipari point guard project. Schmitz has some of the best eyes and analysis you can find come draft season. That’s some high praise coming from him.

With the rest of the NCAA Tournament and not the First Four stuff NCAA Tournament just seemingly hours away at this point, this team has turned into just about every other team that didn’t have Anthony Davis on it for Kentucky under Calipari. If SGA is playing at an elite level, they’re hard to beat. If he turns the ball over and isn’t making plays on both ends, the ‘Cats are in trouble.

I wrote a more in-depth version of this last season when those ‘Cats came *thisclose* to the Final Four, but here’s five things Kentucky must do (or could use/need) to make the Final Four:

1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stays hot

He’s “the guy.” When he’s on, Kentucky’s dangerous. The ‘Cats need everyone, but SGA’s the engine that makes them go. Just like De’Aaron Fox before him, if he’s “the guy” and doing things like we saw in St. Louis, the ‘Cats have a good chance to make a run.

2. Getting Jarred Vanderbilt back

If the ‘Cats are going to have any chance of slowing down Arizona’s version of Thanos in the Round of 32, Pac-12 Player of the Year Deandre Ayton, they need their best rebounder back. Sure, there’s all but the final confirmation of him not playing on Thursday, which may make all of this irrelevant, but there were talks of him missing the season and then he played in 14 games and had the best TRB% (total rebound percentage when on floor) on the roster at 25.6 percent. Vanderbilt could be crucial in this potential matchup. If he feels up to play, let the kid bump against Ayton (assuming Buffalo doesn’t pull the upset). You’re going to need him down the line anyway if you’re going to be in San Antonio.

3. Nick Richards needs one of those “He’s alive!” performances

Whether it’s potentially against Ayton and Arizona or even on Thursday night against Davidson, the ‘Cats need Nick Richards to do ... well, something. He’s been a ghost since scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in the first Alabama win this season on Feb. 17. Since that game, he’s scored a grand total of ... six points. He’s got almost as many fouls (11) as total rebounds since then (16). Wenyen Gabriel has found his confidence. PJ Washington can be a little hit-or-miss, but not like Richards has been. If Calipari continues to start him, he needs to wake up fast or his minutes should be given to someone like Sacha Killeya-Jones, who basically saved the day against Tennessee late.

4. Quade Green continuing to thrive off the bench

OK, take away the season-ending Florida debacle and the Alabama game where Wenyen Gabriel went full Michael Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals-mode and Quade Green has been pretty solid off the pine for the ‘Cats. Since the Auburn loss on Valentine’s Day, Green has averaged 9.6 points and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 42.3 percent from deep. Those two-point guard lineups for Kentucky could be momentum-changers for the ‘Cats in the tournament if they need a scoring spurt.

5. Offense wins tournament titles, defense wins national titles

No team that Kentucky faced in the SEC Tournament shot better than 38 percent from the field. Their best trait as a roster is their ability to frustrate teams in the half-court with their length, quickness and ability to jump-start the break. If this trend continues, Kentucky can go far. If they’re struggling to stay in front of anyone like the Florida finale, your bracket’s probably busted thanks to Davidson.

On top of the defense, the ‘Cats have to rebound, rebound and rebound some more. Only one team (Cincinnati) averaged more rebounds per game than Kentucky’s 38.8 this season and nobody averaged more offensive boards per contest in the South Region than Kentucky’s 12.1. With their size, this shouldn’t be an issue.