LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari’s pursuit of finding and fixing Kentucky basketball’s biggest problems is in overdrive, and he keeps talking about taking minutes from players who won’t or can’t comply with the changes because “it’s that time.” Crunch time. Only six regular-season games and an SEC Tournament left before go time.
So what must be addressed in order for the 13th-ranked Wildcats (20-5, 10-2 SEC) to make a run at Calipari’s fifth Final Four in eight seasons? And what good things already exist that should give Kentucky fans hope it can happen? We asked five smart people – Seth Greenberg of ESPN, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News, Rob Dauster of NBC Sports and Sam Vecenie of Game Theory – to address both.
Seth Greenberg (ESPN)
Kentucky can’t make the Final Four unless … they commit themselves defensively and are disciplined defensively. There’s a difference between disrupting and defending. It’s one thing to disrupt, but if you don’t have the discipline to defend and finish possessions, don’t have the discipline to defend the whole clock, don’t have the discipline and toughness to fight screens, you’re not going to the Final Four.
Kentucky can make the Final Four because … they have the most explosive point guard in college basketball. When he’s at his best, De’Aaron Fox is the most explosive guard on both sides of the floor in college basketball.
Gary Parrish (CBS Sports)
Kentucky can’t make the Final Four unless … I guess I’d say unless 3-point shooting improves. But I don’t really believe that. I mean, it would be nice to shoot better from beyond the arc. But the truth is that Kentucky is a legitimate Final Four threat even in its current form. Four teams have to make it, remember. And the Wildcats are better equipped than most to make it, and just as equipped as almost anybody.
Kentucky can make the Final Four because … the Wildcats have two lottery-pick guards and more talent in general than almost everybody, if not everybody. Despite UK’s struggles relative to preseason expectations, here’s the truth: The Wildcats are still one of only seven schools with a top 20 adjusted offensive efficiency rating and a top 20 adjusted defensive efficiency rating. That means they’re way more solid than the casual fan realizes with plenty of room to improve. So, like I wrote last week, anybody writing Kentucky’s obituary already is ignorant to computer numbers and/or forgetting that we’ve watched two UK teams in recent years lose six times in the SEC and still make the Final Four.
Mike DeCourcy (Sporting News)
Kentucky can’t make the Final Four unless … De’Aaron Fox is a dominant player at both ends. That does not mean he needs to score 25 a game or average 12 assists. He does not need to become an instant Russell Westbrook. He needs to enforce the transition game whenever possible, and prudent, and he needs to make great decisions. He needs to be a disruptive defender when he can and a solid one when he cannot. Controlling penetration without fouling will help keep Bam Adebayo from foul trouble. Those two players are UK’s most important toward winning big games.
Kentucky can make the Final Four because … they are among the most dynamic teams in college basketball. The Wildcats have a lot of what the public loves about UCLA, though they depend more on Malik Monk to score than the Bruins do on any one player. UK can run, can break, can flirt with 100 points on a great day. But the Cats also retain the potential to be a significant defensive team. That requires the guards to be smart and Wenyen Gabriel to be consistent. They’re never going to defend like the 2012 team, but they can be tough and disruptive and sound. They’ve rarely been all three at once this season, but it’s within reach.
Rob Dauster (NBC Sports)
Kentucky can’t make the Final Four unless … they get their defense clicking again. It’s two-fold, because not only do they end up giving up more easy looks than they should, it keeps them from getting out in transition. We know what they are when they have to play in the half court, and it’s “beatable.”
Kentucky can make the Final Four because … no one else has Malik Monk. That dude has proven time and again that he can win a game more or less by himself, and it doesn’t matter if the Wildcats are playing without De’Aaron Fox or against a team like North Carolina. Throw in Fox, who will hopefully return to form by March, and those are two game-changing talents. Every team in college basketball has flaws this year. Not every team has two guys who can mask flaws the way those two can.
Sam Vecenie (Game Theory)
Kentucky can’t make the Final Four unless … it becomes more consistent defensively in the half court. They force turnovers, get out on the break and get easy points that way, but this team hasn’t exactly been the epitome of success on that side of the ball. Currently, the Wildcats are 10th in effective field-goal percentage against in SEC play, which means teams are making a ton of the shots they’re taking against the Wildcats. It’s also worth pointing out that the team has been relatively lucky in terms of opponents’ free throws as well, as they’re only making 64 percent of them. It’s always tough with freshmen to get issues like this sorted out, but it’s a necessity if they want to make a deep run.
Kentucky can make the Final Four because … they have one of the two best backcourts in the country. Freshmen or not, when you have dynamic, explosive talents like De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, that can cover up a lot of holes in the postseason. Also, the Wildcats are simply a tough matchup for a lot of teams due to their aggressiveness for forcing turnovers and general athleticism level. They might be a bit more prone to upset than other teams due to their youth and resilience on Monk offensively, but this team has shown us dizzying heights, such as the North Carolina game. They can certainly make a run with the right matchups.