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How UK is overcoming early nightmares to have strong regular-season finish

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Is it too little too late?

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt the Kentucky Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season.

But can they overcome that horrible 6-13 start?

Had they played this way all season where would they be?

I think they would be at least 14-5, and possibly even 17-2 and ranked in the top 10 with a 2 or 3 NCAA seed. And 12-3 SEC, behind only Alabama. Those 5 losses of five points or less could have definitely been wins.

It’s frustrating to know how good the Cats are now, yet facing the probability of not making the NCAA field.

But if the Cats can finish as strong as they are now they could beat anyone (yep, including Gonzaga). Title No. 9 is not an impossibility. Winning another SEC tournament is a strong possibility.

How did this big turnabout happen?

Improved shooting (especially threes), great free-throw shooting, much fewer turnovers, much tougher defense, the emergence of Olivier Saar as a three-point shooter, and the return of Keion Brooks Jr. have all been major factors.

After hitting just 9/16 free throws in the five-point loss at Missouri, the Cats have hit 91 of their last 114 free throws, a 79.8% clip.

Sarr, who hit just two triples over his first 15 games, has connected on 7/12 threes in his last six games.

The Cats committed 15+ turnovers in 11 of their first 16 games, but they’ve not hit 15 in five-straight games.

As for Brooks, he’s reached double figures in nine of his 12 games, including five of his last six. He’s also combined for 24 points, 28 rebounds, 11 assists five blocks and four steals during Kentucky’s current three-game winning streak, as the sophomore forward is doing a little bit of everything for the Cats.

Lets keep our fingers crossed that the nightmare of December-January is over and there are Big Blue skies ahead.

(Ken Mink is a former Lexington Herald-Leader sports writer and has spent more than 50 years as a journalist and author. He grew up in Vicco, near Hazard.)