A month later, they find themselves in the Sweet 16 with a 57% chance to make the Final Four (per FiveThirtyEight). The emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has certainly powered the Wildcats but break out games from Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel have been key as well.
Kentucky will enter the Sweet 16 coming off their most impressive win of the season. Despite facing early foul trouble, their second best player having his worst game of the season and their third best player sidelined, Kentucky blew the doors off Buffalo in the Round of 32.
Now, the Wildcats will have a matchup with the ninth seeded Kansas State Wildcats. Kansas State defeated the University of Maryland Baltimore County Sunday night to advance to Atlanta. The winner of Kentucky/Kansas State will advance to the Elite 8 to play the winner of the Loyola Ramblers and the Nevada Wolf Pack.
If Kentucky can take care of business, unlike higher seeds such as Virginia, Xavier, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Tennessee, Arizona, Wichita State and Auburn, they’ll advance to yet another Final Four under John Calipari.
Much different from Boise, Atlanta is not 1,954 miles from Lexington. Instead, it’s a mere 380 miles. A fraction of the distance to the first round, along with the Sweet 16 being a much bigger stage, will have Atlanta looking like “Catlanta” come Thursday night.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems like the proper way to start this preview. The sensational freshman has led his Wildcats to a 9-1 record over their last ten games and has seen his draft stock rise into the high lottery. He’s averaging just under 22 points per game since the start of the SEC Tournament.
With four possible games remaining, they’ll need him to be even more spectacular to achieve their goal of winning a championship. Though (at times) it seems the young point guard can do it alone, he’ll need his supporting cast to step up and do their job.
It starts with Kevin Knox.
Knox is coming off his worst game of the season where he was constantly in foul trouble and sloppy on both ends of the floor. Against a tough defensive team like Kansas State, Kentucky will need him to get back on track offensively.
Jarred Vanderbilt, who has been sidelined the past two games with an ankle injury, could return to the floor Thursday night. PJ Washington, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel have joined forces (and done well) inside to try and make up for Vanderbilt’s absence, but no one on this roster brings that kind of intensity on the glass. If he can return, Kentucky instantly gets better rebounding the ball and has another five fouls to give in the paint.
The shooting by Quade Green has slipped under the radar and been overshadowed by Gilgeous-Alexander’s heroics. It hasn’t blown away the box score but his shot-making has been timely in Kentucky finding their momentum.
This game, while I predict Kentucky will win, is certainly not all about Kentucky. Kansas State has stars of their own and one in-particular (just like Vanderbilt) could return Thursday night.
Kansas State’s leading scorer, Dean Wade, has been sidelined the last three games with a stress fracture in his foot. Getting him back will provide not only a major scoring threat but also an inside presence that could be a cause for concern for Kentucky.
Wade has only been held to less than 10 points four times this season and should be a focal point in Kansas State’s offensive game-plan.
Another scorer for the Wildcats is Barry Brown. Brown is leading the team in scoring thus far in the tournament. Brown and Gilgeous-Alexander will likely be matched together for most of Thursday’s game.
While Kansas State has two sufficient scorers, their bread and butter is on the defensive side of the ball. When they hold their opponents under 70 points, they’re 17-2. The two opponents they’ve defeated in the tournament (Creighton and UMBC) were also held under 70 points.
A weakness for Kansas State is undoubtedly on the glass. They rank 339th in rebounding in the country. WIth Vanderbilt possibly coming back, Kentucky should reign terror in the paint.
Kentucky’s also reigned terror on the scoreboard, winning their last five games by an average of 13.2 points.
Since the winner of the Ramblers and Wolf Pack will be decided right before the Wildcats tip, it will be important for Kentucky to not “look ahead” of their competition. As I said before, it didn’t bode well for the victims of the major upsets in this tournament.
The Wolf Pack have scored 87 and 75 points in their two tournament games, averaging out to 81 points per game. Their 75-point outing on Cincinnati’s second ranked scoring defense was the fourth-most the Bearcats had allowed all season.
While Nevada is statistically the better team and mounted a monster comeback to take down the second seeded Cincinnati Bearcats, luck and Sister Jean have been on Loyola’s side.
The Ramblers have benefited from two buzzer beaters for their two tournament upsets over Miami and Tennessee. While their stingy defense allows just over 62 points per contest, the Ramblers will certainly have to score points to contend with the country’s 16th ranked offense.
With a team stellar on defense and the other stellar on offense, something will have to give. My prediction is Loyola’s luck runs out and Kentucky gets a hot 5-7 matchup with Nevada, as Sister Jean’s bracket didn’t even have the Ramblers moving past the Sweet 16.
Only time will tell, but on paper, Kentucky is primed for another deep tournament run. It would certainly be the most impressive of the Calipari era, despite the outcome. His youngest, most offensively challenged team has majorly turned the tides since their four game skid in February.
Now, according to RJ Bell, Kentucky is tied with Gonzaga and Kansas to win the title at 8/1. They trail just Duke and Villanova, who are tied at 4/1.