INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky basketball is seeking its ninth national championship and second under coach John Calipari, but the No. 2 seed Wildcats drew a difficult path to a title in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The worst-case scenario would see UK face Wichita State, UCLA and North Carolina just to reach the Final Four.
But these Cats, who have reeled off 11 consecutive victories, can win it all. While there are reasons to doubt them, here are five things that seem to be falling into place just in time for Kentucky (29-5) to outlast a brutal South Region and beyond.
5. Bam Adebayo hitting his stride
Remember when we all wondered why this 6-foot-10, 260-pound Dwight Howard clone wasn’t rebounding more? Adebayo, a 5-star freshman and 5-star player in 247Sports’ composite rankings, averaged 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds through his first 26 college games. But he heads into the 2017 NCAA Tournament on a tear: 14.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 64 percent shooting over the past nine games. Calipari predicted last summer that Adebayo would play his best basketball at the end of the season, like former UK greats Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns before him, and the Cats coach is looking like a prophet.
4. De’Aaron Fox is back
Kentucky’s star freshman point guard roared out of the gate this season but got derailed by an ankle injury, the flu and a knee injury in quick succession. He sat out two games and hit a six-game skid in which he shot just 38.7 percent from the field and made only 1 of 11 3-point tries. But like Adebayo, Fox took flight just in time for the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 22 points and shot 61.8 percent last week on the way to SEC Tournament MVP honors, and Fox has made 7 of 12 3-point shots over the past six games. As ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg put it to SEC Country, that’s a huge development, “because De’Aaron changes everything.”
3. Glue guys have emerged
Each of Kentucky’s eight NCAA titles were won with help from at least one homegrown player making a significant contribution, and these Wildcats now have two. In-state seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, a 6-foot guard and 6-foot-9 forward, respectively, are playing the best basketball of their college careers. Hawkins was a revelation in the conference tournament title game, earning SEC All-Tournament honors after a career-high 14 points and 4 steals against Arkansas. He averaged 26.3 minutes off the bench in three games in Nashville. Willis, meanwhile, grabbed at least eight rebounds five times in the past eight games and blocked 13 shots in the past five games. Why do veterans matter in March? “None of the nerves get to us,” Willis said.
Malik Monk is putting on a dunking exhibition. Was looking down into the hoop on this one. pic.twitter.com/STTbX7rRMI
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) March 16, 2017
2. Malik Monk is due
An electric freshman shooting guard, an All-American and SEC Player of the Year, Monk can become a legend in the NCAA Tournament and singlehandedly carry a team. But he’s been quiet lately by his gaudy standards, shooting just 32.5 percent overall and 3 of 15 from 3-point range the past four games. That could be good news for the Wildcats, though, as Monk has never gone more than four games without scoring more than 20 points. So it’s about time for one of those heaters, like his seven 3s on Michigan State, 47 points on North Carolina or 37 points against Georgia. Monk grinned when asked Thursday whether he’s itching to score. “My teammates know what I can do,” he said, “and if I get hot, they’ll just give me the ball.”
1. Kentucky is finally playing defense
During Kentucky’s 11-game winning streak, opponents managed just 102 assists to 134 turnovers. They shot 40 percent or worse from the field six times in that stretch and made just 28.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. The Wildcats finally look committed on defense, and as Calipari said after the SEC title game: “The whole key to us will be defense. If we continue to guard, we’ll have a nice little run. But if we don’t defend, we’ll lose real fast. Like, real fast. We guard and play with great energy and disrupt and do the things we’ve been doing, it should be a fun NCAA Tournament.”