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Kentucky must up its game as SEC schedule kicks it up a notch

The Wildcats have to take their game to another level if they’re going to survive their upcoming schedule.

Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Game in and game out, the 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats have been a hard team to project.

The first 15 games of the season have been characterized by slow starts and frustratingly close games against lesser opponents. However, they did have two great wins over North Carolina and at Louisville that were controlled by the Cats from start to finish, with the end result never really being in doubt once Kentucky asserted control.

But Kentucky also has some questionable osses to Seton Hall (39th in NET) and at Alabama (50th in NET and have lost to LSU and at home to Texas A&M this past week).

Kentucky has seen its stock go from a preseason top-five team with a projected 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament to being in danger of falling out of the top-four seed line.

There have been bright spots, however. Kentucky has been close to the top in college basketball in rebounding margin. Currently they sit a No. 1 in the country in rebounds allowed by opponents (28.2) and No. 5 in rebounding percentage (57.5).

However, the biggest improvement, and perhaps the most important improvement has been the play of Ashton Hagans. It has taken him some time to get comfortable with the college game, but boy has he gotten comfortable.

Since the UNCG game, Hagans has become a spark on the defensive side of the ball. His 8 steal performance against UNC is one of the best defensive performances in UK basketball history.

And since Hagans has become a defensive spark, the rest of the team has upped its defensive intensity. The offense has been erratic, but the Wildcats have shown they have what it takes to win games with their defense.

Coming into this season, Kentucky was riding high. After the commanding victories in the Bahamas, the Cats were feeling themselves and looked to be legitimate title contenders. But they had flaws and the season opening drubbing by Duke both exposed those flaws and shocked the new guys coming in.

Doubts surfaced and the team and Cal had to go back to basics. Since Duke, this team has been finding itself. Now, however, we’re about to see just how good this team can really be, as the schedule is about to kick it up another notch.

Kentucky has been fortunate to get at least one ‘easy’ game a week since the start of SEC play. Those will be hard to come by moving forward. That begins this week with a road test vs. the Georgia Bulldogs (73rd in NET). While they do have six losses, Tom Crean’s bunch have been far more competitive than their record suggests.

They also just beat Vanderbilt by 19, the same team that gave Kentucky everything they wanted in Rupp Arena. And with the way Kentucky has played over the last two weeks, any road game is going to be a big challenge.

But the real test is Saturday vs. the Auburn Tigers (17th in NET and 11th in KenPom). This will be far and away the toughest road game Kentucky has faced thus far, and there’s an argument to be made that Auburn will be the second-best team Kentucky has played behind Duke.

Then comes a home date with Mississippi State (34th in NET and 28th in KenPom). While the Bulldogs haven’t lived up to the preseason hype, they’ll be the best team Kentucky has played in Rupp Arena.

That will quickly change the following Saturday when the Cats host the Kansas Jayhawks (12th in NET and 9th in KenPom. The Jayhawks have won three-straight in the series, and they’ll present a major challenge for the Cats, even in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

The following week features a Tuesday road test vs. the Florida Gators (39th in NET and 24th in KenPom). ESPN’s matchup predictor currently gives the Gators a 57.4% chance of holding serve at home.

Kentucky then gets a very winnable home game vs. a 7-7 South Carolina Gamecocks squad, but that’s followed by a road game at Mississippi State.

The following week will be a tough week for the Cats, as they host the LSU Tigers (25th in NET and 38th in KenPom.

The real test comes that Saturday when Kentucky hosts the Tennessee Volunteers (5th in NET and KenPom). They are probably the best team Kentucky will face the rest of the way before the postseason.

Then comes at winnable road game vs. the Missouri Tigers (71st in NET and 86th in KenPom), followed by a Saturday home game vs. Auburn.

A winnable Tuesday home game is next vs, the Arkansas Razorbacks (84th in NET, 55th in KenPom), followed by a road game at Tennessee, which is easily the hardest game left on the schedule.

The final week of regular-season action will see Kentucky hit the road to face the Ole Miss Rebels (28th in NET and 30th in KenPom). Coming into the year, that looked like one of, if not the easiest road game for Kentucky in SEC play, but Kermit Davis’ bunch have been one of the biggest surprises of college basketball, as they’re 13-2 with wins over Auburn and at Mississippi State.

The regular-season finale will see the Gators come to Rupp, and then the SEC Tournament begins. For Kentucky to win the tournament, they’ll likely face at least two, if not more from that group of teams they’ll likely be underdogs against.

If we’re being honest, it’s hard to see Kentucky coming out of this stretch without at least four losses. If there were spreads for each game, the Cats are probably underdogs at Florida, at Ole Miss, at Mississippi State, at Auburn and in both games vs. Tennessee.

For what it’s worth, TeamRankings is projecting Kentucky to end up with 21.5 wins and 9.5 losses, which means Kentucky would lose at least six more games.

While that record seems bad, with the SEC being so good from top to bottom, it still may be good enough for a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, especially if Kentucky can get at least one big road win.