The proverbial Eye Test tells us Kentucky (26-8 overall, 13-5 in SEC) was unjustly under-seeded by the NCAA tournament committee, receiving a 4-seed in the difficult East region, when a 2- or 3-seed elsewhere might have been proper.
After all, the Wildcats opened the season as the nation’s top-ranked team, earned a share of the SEC regular-season title, enjoyed a finishing kick of 10-2 and outlasted Texas A&M (3-seed in the NCAAs) for the conference tournament championship.
Kentucky also boasts the best backcourt in the land (Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray), a slew of All-Americans in the regular rotation and a charismatic, wildly successful head coach (John Calipari), who’s also a master of deflecting tournament pressure away from his players (see below).
So, how does that warrant a mere 4-seed?
Nothing can be done about the seeding rationale; but Kentucky controls its own destiny from this point forward, in hopes of conquering arguably this year’s toughest regional — featuring North Carolina, Xavier, West Virginia, Indiana, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Southern California, Providence and a media-darling Stony Brook squad, which currently enjoys top-20 rankings nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, assists per game, fewest fouls and scoring defense.
On the flip side, this mission won’t be easy for a Wildcats squad that bears little resemblance to last year’s defensive-savvy juggernaut, given the following nugget:
**From a stats perspective, Kentucky doesn’t own a top-50 ranking with turnover margin, three-pointers made, assist-to-turnover margin, free throw attempts, scoring offense, scoring defense, assists per game or rebounds per game.
SEC Country offers five keys to the Wildcats surviving the East region and advancing to the Final Four in Houston:
1. KENTUCKY NEEDS A VIABLE THIRD SCORER FOR EVERY GAME
Junior forward Derek Willis (seasonal averages: 8.0 points, 3.9 rebounds) has tallied double-digit points in eight of his last 15 games.
During the SEC tournament, freshman Isaiah Briscoe averaged 11 points (combined 9-of-17 shooting) during the semifinal and final rounds.
If you take away the zero-point clunker against Vanderbilt (Feb. 27), senior Alex Poythress has scored double-digit points in eight straight outings.
And yet, none of the trio are guaranteed to be consistent scoring fixtures during the NCAA tournament, primarily due to the heavy workload reserved for Ulis and Murray.
Since Feb. 6, spanning 11 games, Ulis (seasonal averages: 17.2 points, 7.2 assists) has attempted 13 or more field goals seven times.
And the freshman Murray (seasonal averages: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds) has now attempted double-digit field goals in 27 consecutive games — including six outings of 20-plus attempts.
In other words, at least one other Wildcat — aside from Murray and Ulis — must rise to the scoring occasion during the NCAAs, knowing the shots won’t automatically be there.
2. THE WILDCATS MUST PROTECT THE RIM AGAINST PENETRATING GUARDS
Yes, Kentucky holds impressive national rankings with blocks (fourth), blocks per game (seventh) and scoring margin (18th); but still, there’s no scary fear factor for opposing guards on dribble-drive penetration.
Remember last season? The Wildcats guards/wings would exert intense pressure onto the ball handlers and wings near the half-court line, with the intent of flustering — and eventually funneling — opponents to the middle of the paint, where a stacked cadre of big, long and athletic shot-blockers would be waiting.
Well, even if it’s for a three-week run, the current Wildcats need to recapture that mojo on the defensive end — and it starts with junior Marcus Lee (seasonal averages: 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) and freshman Skal Labissiere (1.6 blocks per game — below) controlling the paint and protecting the rim.
The following mission is easier said than done: During Kentucky’s victory over LSU (March 5), I counted at least four times in the first half when opposing guards/wings submitted clean shots from point-blank range — minus any reprisal for boldly attacking the basket. (To be fair, Labissiere rolled for six blocks on the day.)
These short-term lulls simply cannot happen during the tournament — even against Stony Brook.
3. KENTUCKY CANNOT GET SUCKED INTO A ‘SLOW-DOWN’ GAME DURING THE TOURNEY
This might be an easy objective for Kentucky.
Of the Wildcats’ likely opponents for the first three rounds (Stony Brook, Indiana, North Carolina), the Tar Heels might be the most halfcourt-oriented bunch of the group — which isn’t saying much.
Charting their 26 wins, the Stony Brook Seawolves tallied 60 or more points 22 times.
Charting its seven losses, Indiana still averaged 22.3 three-point attempts.
And top-seeded North Carolina only scored less than 70 points three times all season — including losses to Northern Iowa and Louisville.
For what it’s worth … since SEC action began on Jan. 2, Kentucky scored at least 75 points for all 17 victories — including the conference title-game win over Texas A&M.
4. ENCOURAGE NORTH CAROLINA GUARD MARCUS PAIGE TO BE SELFISH
Of the Tar Heels’ five seasonal losses with Paige in the lineup (injured against Northern Iowa), the senior guard — who’s been mired in a terrible second-half shooting slump — shot just 36 percent from the field.
However, that didn’t deter Paige from attempting at least 10 shots in each of the five defeats (21 of 58 total).
What’s more, Paige never tallied more than four assists in any of the losses.
5. DO NOT TAKE XAVIER FOR GRANTED IN THE REGIONAL FINAL
Given the East’s confounding seeding order, the winner-take-all stakes of a regional final and the close proximity of Cincinnati, Ohio and Lexington, Ky., it’s hard to envision Kentucky taking Xavier (27-5 overall, 14-4 Big East) lightly in the Elite Eight.
Still, the Wildcats must overcome any early tidings of superiority, given how the Musketeers unfairly (and incorrectly) carry the ‘mid-major’ label in some areas of the country.
Plus, there’s this:
**Xavier had a 10-3 record against NCAA tourney-bound teams.
**Of those 10 victories, the Musketeers enjoyed a double-digit point spread seven times (this doesn’t even include a 24-point rout of Auburn, which beat Kentucky in January).
**The Musketeers hold top-20 rankings with rebounds per game (12th nationally), rebounding margin (20th) and scoring offense (18th).
**Xavier has more balance than North Carolina, boasting six scorers (Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, Myles Davis, James Farr, J.P. Macura, Jalen Reynolds) with averages of 9.4 or more points per game. (Seven Muskies currently average 20-plus minutes per outing.)
**The Big Blue faithful might not have unfettered access to every spare ticket for the Philadelphia regional, given the workable proximity for the other Sweet 16 favorites.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.