Between Kentucky’s 19-point comeback vs. Vandy and this morning’s storms, March certainly came in like a lion. How fitting is it that the most important month of the year started with a nail biter? After a roller coaster regular season, where do the Cats stand heading into March? After examining the landscape, they’re in better shape than you’d think.
Here are nine reasons to feel confident about Kentucky’s chances in March, because, you know, we’re going for nine.
1. There are no dominant teams
Even though the national media practically gave Duke the national championship trophy at the beginning of the season, there haven’t been any dominant teams this year like in the past. There have been six different number one teams in the AP Top 25 poll this season, three in the past month. Right now, there’s a core group of about eight teams that are legitimate title contenders, and each has struggled recently:
- Kansas: Lost at Iowa State on Feb. 4, trailed Oklahoma by 12 last night
- Villanova: Lost to Butler last week
- UCLA: Hasn’t lost in the past month, but is ranked 95th in defensive efficiency by KenPom (No team that’s won the title in the KenPom Era has ranked lower than 21st in defensive efficiency)
- North Carolina: Lost to Virginia by 10 on Monday, only scored 43 points
- Oregon: Lost at UCLA on Feb. 10
- Louisville: Lost at North Carolina on Wednesday, at Virginia on Feb. 6
- Kentucky: Only loss in the past month was at Florida, but has needed Malik Monk to bail them out from slow starts
- Gonzaga: Lost to BYU at home on Saturday
I’m tempted to replace Gonzaga with Duke on that list because I simply can’t imagine the Zags winning it all, but my point is, unlike most years, there isn’t a heavy favorite going in. In fact, if you look across the entire landscape of college basketball, you can see that…
2. Everyone is struggling
Back on February 11, the Selection Committee released their top 16 seeds one month before Selection Sunday. Shoutout to @BigBlueBit for this telling graphic, which shows which teams have lost since then (one line equals one loss). Kentucky is one of only four teams that hasn’t lost since February 11:
3. Malik Monk
The biggest reason Kentucky make a run in March? When Malik Monk is in the zone, he’s unstoppable. Monk has scored 50 points in the second halves of Kentucky’s last two games combined. While Monk has struggled to get rolling early on, he has a knack for coming through when his team needs it the most. Not only can Monk get scorching hot from the outside, in the past week, he’s started driving the lane more, earning easy points and opening up Kentucky’s offense a little bit. It’s like he realized he’s an 84% free throw shooter or something.
4. Malik Monk vs. big teams
Additionally, Monk has a way of going off vs. elite teams. This morning, Chris Fisher put together these averages of Monk’s performances vs. Michigan State, UCLA, North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas:
- 48 of 94 FG (51%)
- 22 of 46 3PFG (47.8%)
- 25.6 points per game
If Kentucky can avoid upset and make it to the Elite Eight, I like Monk’s chances of going off on the big stage even more.
5. Calipari’s track record in March
Since coming to Kentucky in 2009, Calipari’s taken his teams to the Final Four or beyond four out of seven seasons for an impressive 57% clip. The 2010 team not making it was the universe’s way of punishing us for having too much fun, but the 2013 and 2016 teams both had glaring problems offensively, specifically on the inside. While this team is shaky at the four spot, it’s beginning to get consistent production from Bam Adebayo in the post, a must heading into March.
6. De’Aaron Fox hasn’t been at 100% in a while
Between an ankle injury, an illness, and a knee injury, De’Aaron Fox has missed two games in the past month and played about 23 minutes per game, down from his 29.4 minute season average. Even when he has played, Fox clearly hasn’t been at 100% and last night, the rust showed. Calipari said Fox practiced Monday for the first time in five or six days, and thankfully, he finally seemed to click into gear late in the game. If he can finally get back to 100%, Kentucky will be a stronger team for it. Dominique Hawkins shouldered the load admirably in Fox’s absence, but for Kentucky to win a title, they have to have Fox playing well.
7. Defense is improving
This is still Calipari’s worst defensive team during his time here, but it’s worth noting that they are getting better. Kentucky’s held three of its last five opponents to under 37% shooting from the field, a marked improvement over the 42.6% season average. They’re also working the boards better, averaging a +11.8 rebounding margin the past five games. For the first time this year, Kentucky’s defensive efficiency (11th) now ranks higher than its offensive efficiency (13th) in KenPom’s ratings. Yes, the Cats still have lapses, but we’ve seen more lockdown team defense in the past few weeks than at any point this season.
8. Seniors are contributing
As we’ve talked about ad nauseam the last few days, this is Calipari’s most productive senior class, and as any one-and-done hater will tell you, you’ve gotta have significant seniors to make a run in March. At this point, this is what you can count on from each senior on any given night:
- Dominique Hawkins: Lockdown defense and hustle
- Derek Willis: At least one big three and rebounding (!)
- Mychal Mulder: Outside shooting (if he plays)
While the core of this team is young, having two seniors that have been to the Final Four twice is an underrated intangible.
9. Nothing brings a team together better than the SEC Tournament
While the SEC Tournament is a great excuse for the Big Blue Nation to come party in Nashville, it’s also a proven ground for team bonding. Over the years, we’ve seen teams come together during those three or four day spans, most notably the 2013-14 group that implemented the “tweak” in Atlanta. Three straight days of nothing but basketball brings out the best in young and talented squads, and Kentucky will have the chance to iron out the kinks against SEC teams in front of what will basically be a home crowd, a luxury almost any of the other title contenders would kill for. If the Cats can’t gather momentum for a run with all of that, then it’s just not meant to be.
Oh, did I mention Malik Monk?